In Lantana’s opening-credits sequence, strongly reminiscent of Blue Velvet’s ravenous-insects-hiding-in-the-grass prologue, Australian filmmaker Ray Lawrence’s camera penetrates a thicket of the titular flowering shrubs to discover a dead body. Although this promises to be the setup for a thriller, it’s largely a pretext to explore the tangled lives of four couples.

Midlife suburbanite Leon (Anthony LaPaglia), a married police detective with two adolescent sons, is first seen indulging in passionate sex with Jane (Rachael Blake), a lonely woman estranged from her hapless husband, Pete (Glenn Robbins). Leon guiltily returns to his wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), who, troubled by her increasingly distant husband, secretly seeks help from Valerie (Barbara Hershey), a psychotherapist who finds herself in a parallel situation. Since the murder of their daughter, Valerie and her college professor husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), have drifted apart. When one of these characters disappears, Leon is assigned to handle the case. After considerable soul-searching, Jane implicates her working-class neighbor Nik (Vince Colosimo). Ironically, Nik and his spunky wife, Paula (Daniela Farinacci), the parents of three children, are the only couple in Andrew Bovell’s screenplay whose marriage is untainted by alienation and deceit.

Lions Gate, Lantana’s American distributor, has requested that reviewers withhold the outcome of Leon’s investigation. To honor their entreaty, I’m left in a position rather like that of the film’s characters, who are bent on concealing information from one another. Indeed, much of Lantana’s considerable pleasure stems from wry surprises. When Valerie’s gay patient Patrick (Peter Phelps) confides that he’s having an affair with a married man, for example, we’re teasingly encouraged to predict the lover’s identity—only to have our expectations dashed when the adulterer is finally exposed.

Bovell’s twisted, rather contrived plot line gains credence from Lawrence’s realistic visual presentation. The director staged the action on location and instructed cinematographer Mandy Walker to employ only available light sources. Apart from Hershey’s somewhat mannered Valerie—she’s made up and photographed to resemble a Down Under Morticia Addams—the castmembers give detailed, naturalistic performances. LaPaglia is especially impressive as a man near the end of his emotional tether, though several early sequences in which he appears on the verge of a heart attack are perversely misleading. Leah Purcell, making her feature-film debut as Leon’s police partner, Claudia, is largely restricted to a sidekick role, but she adds a welcome note of sly humor to the fraught proceedings. Thirty and single, she’s loyal to Leon but, exasperated by his infidelity, pricks his conscience with her cheeky reactions to his conduct.

Lantana’s intricate design and smooth craftsmanship, however, fail to compensate for its lack of substance. After resolving the mystery of the corpse and untangling its convoluted relationships, Lawrence and Bovell’s film exhausts its resources, leaving us less to think about than similar-themed ensemble pieces. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia offered a harrowing quasi-religious vision of guilt and redemption. Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies uncovered some sobering truths about the terrible price exacted by concealment. Excessively diagrammatical in its depiction of marital perfidy and overly tidy in tying up its narrative threads, Lantana is absorbing but ultimately too shallow to make a lasting impression.

It’s easy to understand why actors salivate at the opportunity to impersonate self-destructive real-life artists. Such roles showcase their expressive ranges and have the extra cachet of associating them with tortured, uncompromising creative talents. Think of Kirk Douglas’ Van Gogh, Dustin Hoffman’s Lenny Bruce, Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison, Ed Harris’ Jackson Pollock, and Bette Midler’s thinly disguised Janis Joplin—performances regarded as high points of their respective careers.

Benjamin Bratt, who has yet to duplicate his Law & Order success on the big screen, plays the title role in Pinero, a biopic about Puerto Rican poet-playwright-actor Miguel Pinero. But Bratt’s compelling performance can’t salvage writer-director Leon Ichaso’s overly fragmented treatment of his subject. Shot in a frenetic style fusing cinema verite and music videos, Pinero yields little more than a skin-deep portrait.

Abandoned by her husband, Miguel’s mother brought her children to New York in the mid-’50s. As a young man, Pinero became a drug addict and street criminal, serving time in Sing Sing for petty theft. He drew on his prison experiences as the basis for his reputation-making 1974 play Short Eyes, which received six Tony Award nominations and was successfully adapted for the screen by filmmaker Robert M. Young in 1977. While continuing to write plays and poetry, co-founding the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and acting in movies (Fort Apache, the Bronx) and on television (Miami Vice, Kojak), Pinero remained a junkie and larcenist. In 1988, he died of cirrhosis of the liver at 41.

Rather than presenting Pinero’s life chronologically, Ichaso interweaves his subject’s present and past—a strategy that fails to conceal the banality of his screenplay. The shards of his cinematic mosaic are numbingly formulaic: Pinero’s contempt for his absentee father and attachment to his nurturing mother; his exploitative relationships with Sugar (Talisa Soto), his supportive actress-mistress, and an assortment of friends, notably his loyal, long-suffering professor/mentor Miguel Algarin (Giancarlo Esposito). In nearly every sequence, Ichaso spasmodically cuts from color to black-and-white, employing an assortment of film stocks and digital processes. Although his apparent intention is to create a visual style that mirrors Pinero’s turbulent life, the effect is gratingly pretentious.

In a more thoughtfully conceived and coherently executed movie, Bratt’s gutsy, deglamorized Pinero would have made a stronger impact. But with Ichaso shredding his performance into tiny snippets, the actor’s efforts are largely wasted. The director’s quick-cut continuity similarly diminishes the other cast members’ contributions, which are manifest only in those fleeting moments—such as the affecting scene in which Pinero comes to Algarin’s home for advice and shelter—when he allows a sequence to develop without distracting visual pyrotechnics. Ichaso’s decision to include celebrity cameos in a quasi-documentary film is another artistic misstep. Each time one of these showbiz faces pops up—Mandy Patinkin as theater impresario Joseph Papp, Rita Moreno as Pinero’s mother, Robert Klein as his physician—verisimilitude evaporates.

The movie’s press material lionizes Pinero as “the late Latino icon,” but we’re offered little evidence that his writing or reputation merits such reverence. Neither the brief excerpts from Pinero’s plays nor the chunks of his self-serving hortatory poems that Ichaso includes suggest that the writer possessed a talent of more that ephemeral interest. Pinero’s occasional insights into human perversity hardly compensate for his prideful criminality, callous manipulation of people who cared for him, and heedless self-abuse. Hard as Ichaso labors to persuade us that his subject was a junkie Christ destroyed by mankind’s sins, his film is more convincing as a profile of a sociopathic con man than as a hagiography. CP