‘Ma Ma’
Director:
Julio Medem
Stars: Penelope Cruz, Luis Tosar
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

With its singing oncologist and repeated shots of a CGI fetus, “Ma Ma” will never be mistaken for your average cancer saga. Toggling madly between jokey, melodramatic and weirdly, perhaps unnecessarily surreal, this Spanish whatzit finds Penelope Cruz as Magda, a flighty, divorced, newly fired school teacher who was too scatterbrained to consult a professional about a lump in her breast. Alas, it’s not benign, and when she learns it will have to go, the brush with death gives her a new respect for life.

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It also gives a filmmaker obsessed with flesh a chance to try something different — yet similar. Julio Medem (of such arty Euro-eroticas as “Sex and Lucia” and “Room in Rome”) is an outside-the-box choice for a genre historically regulated to Lifetime. Initially, it seems he’s taken the same tack as last year’s “Miss You Already.” That was a cancer movie that blurred the line between gallows humor and blunt honesty, finding dark and therapeutic amusement in the unsightly bits (the existential despair, the excess vomiting) films like it sweep under the rug. “Ma Ma” doesn’t go that far, though it does kick off by letting Cruz turn a breast exam into a chance for light slapstick, then has her spluttering about nipping off to the hair salon before the results come in.

Cruz grounds a film that’s prone to fly off into weird and inexplicable places. The most where-did-this-come-from? element is Magda’s dashing doctor (Asier Etxeandia), who’s as flirty as he is professional, and isn’t above crooning moony ballads as she’s being put under. When he’s onscreen “Ma Ma” plays like a transmission from one of those alternate dimension channels on “Rick and Morty.” Indeed, it feels like Medem has switched to another weirdo broadcast whenever he indulges his love for hideous CGI imagery. A sex scene is filmed entirely inside Magda’s body, staring at her quickly beating, digitally-rendered heart, which somehow vaguely resembles a bug. When she falls for and gets knocked up by an impotent soccer scout (Luis Tosar), glimpses of their unborn child in the womb look like the scariest creature the Brothers Quay never filmed.

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“Ma Ma”’s battiness can be endearing, or it can feel like Medem pounded too many glugs of spice onto a bland genre — despite having written the screenplay himself. Its plot is pure soap, including the mid-film revelation that Magda might not be in the clear after all. Medem’s direction could be deemed over-determined, or it could be an ambitious way to get us into her heightened, discombobulated headspace. Early on he uses quickie flashforwards that then jump back — a device Dennis Hopper conjured up in “Easy Rider” and barely ripped-off since. When Magda chills out and accepts her fate, he settles for aping Cruz’s sometime boss Pedro Almodovar, delivering melodrama at once sincere and self-aware. But he lacks Almodovar’s control and can’t resist his own worst instincts. Unlike a Lifetime movie, it’s not easily forgotten. But at its (ugly, CGI) heart it’s still a Lifetime movie.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge