We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

In Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, The Flower of My Secret, a woman who writes romance novels but hates them meets a man who reads and loves them. Presumably, there’s something of the film’s writer/director in both those characters, but especially in the latter. Almodóvar loves weepy trash so much that he’s even trying to play the stuff (almost) straight.

With dizzy energy and high low style, Almodóvar has made his private obsessions matter to a loyal art-house audience. Still, Secret may leave all but the most devoted behind. Punk, scatology, S&M, rape, murder, and transvestism are one thing, but it’s going too far to try to evoke warm feelings for Rich and Famous, the mediocre Candice Bergen/Jacqueline Bisset vehicle with which George Cukor ended his career.

Though embroidered with comic bits around the edges, Secret is basically a melodrama, a “woman’s picture” like those in which Cukor specialized. Leo (Marisa Paredes) lives despairingly in Madrid, estranged emotionally and geographically from her handsome, cold husband Paco (Imanol Arias); a Spanish military officer stationed in Brussels, Paco would rather volunteer for duty in Yugoslavia than sleep with Leo. Only a handful of people know that Leo is also Amanda Gris, author of a string of popular romance novels that provide faithful readers with the happily-ever-afters her own marriage lacks. In her current mood, she can no longer produce “pink” novels; instead, she’s written a black tale her publisher refuses to touch.

Seeking to create another career as a serious critic of women’s literature, Leo goes to see Angel (Juan Echanove), the literary editor of a major Madrid newspaper, El País, and a friend of her confidante Betty (Carmen Elias). Angel suggests that Leo write about Amanda Gris, a suggestion she initially rejects, explaining that she prefers the likes of Djuna Barnes or Jane Bowles. Eventually, she agrees to pen a pseudonymous attack on Gris’ work, to be paired with an essay by one of the romance novelist’s fans, also pseudonymous. The fan, of course, is Angel, a warm, rotund man who is everything that Paco is not.

As dense with symbols and parallels as heavy-duty Bergman, Flower is outfitted with mirrors and false images, the living dead and the resurrected. In the opening scene, two young doctors at a training seminar practice how to tell a obstinately hopeful mother than her son is brain dead—just like Leo’s marriage. After Leo swallows an overdose of sleeping pills, she’s lured back to life by the voice of her mother—Almodóvar has always loved disembodied voices—on her answering machine. As they return to the family’s ancestral village together, her mother (Chus Lampreave) tells Leo the story of how she nearly died at her birth. Nourished by the village’s matriarchal society, Leo is reborn yet again. So is Amanda Gris, under circumstances that briefly seem mysterious.

Leo, sometimes shot so that she’s twinned with her own reflection, is not the only character living a double life. Betty and Paco have their secrets, Leo’s maid turns out to be a famous flamenco dancer, and no one can figure how Bigas Luna (a Spanish director who is Almodóvar’s rival in outrageousness) could have gotten a copy of Leo’s unpublishable novel. Only Angel, a man with his own taste for pen names, is an open book.

Alas, all this is more clever than it is fun. Almodóvar is certainly not attempting to make a ’40s woman’s picture, let alone Rich and Famous, whose final moment this film’s last scene self-consciously emulates; the director undercuts his tale’s contrivances with matter-of-fact scenes of student protests, his characteristically earthy humor, and the portrayal of Leo herself, who strongly disapproves of the melodrama she’s in. Yet he doesn’t etch the theatrics in vitriol, in the manner of acid-camp predecessor Rainer Fassbinder. It’s encouraging that he’s no longer as condescending as he once was to his female characters, but his affection for Leo proves more philosophically engaging than it is dramatically effective.

A perverse gift to Bob Dole, Fear defends family values as vigorously as it panders to slasher-porn thrills. With Christopher Crowe’s script trumpeting its themes like a drunken driver leaning on the horn, the result is crass and noxious. The movie is supposed to make you terrified of strangers and adolescent sexuality, but instead demonstrates that it’s Hollywood that’s really scary.

As directed by James (At Close Range, Who’s That Girl?) Foley, Fear is unapologetically, almost defiantly, secondhand. It opens with that aerial shot that’s been used 50 times since Working Girl, the camera swooping across the water toward an urban skyline. It’s Seattle again, where all white males are apparently architects (Sleepless in Seattle, Intersection), including striving, uptight dad Steve Walker (William Petersen). The Walkers live in a detached, exclusive suburban community (Eye for an Eye), but they have every reason to be apprehensive. A cool psychopath is courting one of the house’s female inhabitants, and he knows the family’s essential secret: the security system code (Unlawful Entry).

Not content simply to flog the suburban paranoia that has so disfigured American comity, Fear juices the proceedings with the specter of teen sex. Sixteen-year-old Nicole (Reese Witherspoon) is ready to lose her virginity, and she chooses a quiet, seemingly polite youth she first spies in a downtown bar; David (Mark Wahlberg, formerly vanilla rapper Marky Mark) is soon fingering Nicole to orgasm on a roller-coaster ride. As Dad immediately suspects, David is a lunatic, capable of viciously beating Nicole’s platonic male pal Gary or killing the family pet (Fatal Attraction). At first, though, Nicole and stepmom Laura (Amy Brenneman) are inclined to think that Dad’s apprehension is merely jealousy of the man who’s stolen the love of his suddenly grown-up daughter.

Crowe’s script couldn’t be more blatant about this conflict. David taunts Steve’s declining virility, accusing him of being unable to satisfy his wife. His own lust, insists amateur sociobiologist David, is crucial to the species, while Steve throws a fit when he finds that David has stolen Nicole’s “Daddy’s Girl” bracelet (not to mention a pair of her underpants). “You should have let nature take its course,” David jeers at Steve during their final confrontation. “All he wants is for you to be his little girl forever,” he tells Nicole before mockingly inviting Steve to “give away the bride” at gunpoint.

Since no one who’s smart enough to read a review of Fear could possibly care how it comes out, let’s ignore the customary niceties about not revealing too much of the plot: Despite numerous warning signs, Nicole doesn’t comprehend David’s viciousness until she inadvertently glimpses the soft-spoken thug about to force her somewhat slutty best friend Margot have sex with him. After Nicole breaks off with him, David goes on a rampage, murdering innocent Gary and then leading a gang of his long-haired drug-dealer cronies to terrorize the Walker household. Taking a stand in the very symbol of their domestic normality—the intruder-proof homestead Steve himself designed—the family beats back the forces of depravity, broken households, and other stuff left over from the ’60s.

It’s a new-leftist cliché to say that middle America considers heavy gunplay less threatening than heavy petting, but Fear certainly does. In an example of family togetherness so bizarre that it ought to be satire—but isn’t—each one of the Walkers gets to off a doper: Nicole knocks one from the second floor to the ground, Laura nails one with an electric drill, little Toby runs over one with the car, and Steve tosses one out a window. If this is what family bonding is like in the suburbs, I’ll stay downtown.CP