*** Dir: Pedro Almodovar With: Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portillo Like Jell-O on springs. Jack Lemmon's description of Marilyn Monroe, wiggling down a platform near the start of Some Like It Hot, sashays to mind while watching Pedro Almodovar's alluring but oddly subdued Broken Embraces.

This time it's a lithe Penelope Cruz, looking every inch the ballet dancer she was, doing the walking. It's one of several Marilyn moments Almodovar's muse enjoys, another being the donning of a platinum blonde wig. Like Wilder and Hitchcock, Almodovar, the director who puts the opera into cinematic soap opera, likes his leading ladies to be all women. Everything must be too much, or not at all.

Yet for all the usual Almodovarian melodrama in his tale of a film within a film, Broken Embraces is a muted offering from the director of Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down and Volver. What one wants from the master of high-octane storytelling is a cloud scattering whoosh of colour and emotion. Here, dealing with story so elaborately constructed it makes the Casa Batlló look like a Nissen hut, he struggles to reach those heights.

Though the long, loving relationship between audiences and Almodovar - it's been 21 years since Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - won't enter a more passionate realm with Broken Embraces, there is much to enjoy here.

Cruz, be assured, is as breathtaking as ever. Whether drinking coffee daintily or lost in the wilds of passion, she is utterly dazzling. The girl can't help it. No wonder Almodovar and his camera adore her so much.

One face alone, alas, cannot make a film, so around her delicate frame a story must be constructed. This one, even by Almodovar's standards, is a many splendoured thing. Rather too many splendours in fact.

Back and forth across the decades we go with a blinded director in mourning for a lost love - a failed actress turned escort girl turned secretary turned actress again (Cruz) - an agent with a secret, a fatherless son with questions, and another son out to atone for the sins of his father.

All that, and you get to see Cruz chopping tomatoes for gazpacho, too. (These are no ordinary tomatoes mind you, they're not even M&S food porn tomatoes, they're Almodovar tomatoes, the reddest and juiciest fruits you'll ever see. As such they almost put Cruz in the shade.) Broken Embraces opens with writer and former director Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) showing his horizontal appreciation to a blonde who helped him cross the road. "Everything has already happened to me," says the handsome Caine with the practised ease of a character setting up a good story, "all that's left is to enjoy life."

News of the death of wealthy financier Ernesto Martel is the cue for the tale to loop back to the heady days of the Nineties, when Harry, then known as Mateo Blanco, was a hotshot film director and Lena (Cruz), Martel's vastly younger girlfriend, was his leading lady.

Other factors conspire to send Harry on a journey into the past. Martel's son - who, we see in flashbacks, used to bear an alarming, and hugely distracting, resemblance to Little Britain's David Walliams - wants Caine to help him make a documentary. Meanwhile, the son of Caine's agent and best friend Judit (Blanca Portillo) is curious to know the story of Harry's last film as a director, the high farce Girls and Suitcases, a picture which has much in common, smoking bed and all, with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. We have glimpses of Girls and Suitcases throughout the picture, but Almodovar makes the audience wait till the end for a good look at this psychedelically coloured masterpiece.

It was notable at the screening I attended that Girls and Suitcases got the biggest laughs of the night. If only more of it had appeared earlier the mood of the entire film could have been lifted. As it is, Almodovar spends much of the movie delving ever deeper into melodrama, his labours assisted by Alberto Iglesias's pitch perfect film noir score.

The deeper Almodovar gets, however, the longer it takes to dig himself out again. Pace is to melodrama what laughs are to comedies. The story must move along, click, click, click, like Marilyn on the station platform. Broken Embraces takes a few too many leisurely wanders up hill and down dale. As for the done to death, film-within-a-film structure, one expects something more from an innovator such as Aldomovar.

Inward looking it may be, but there is much in Broken Embraces to hold dear, not least Blanco Portillo's captivating performance as Harry's best friend. Almodovar's film is as much about restored ties as broken embraces, about loyalty and friendship as much as passion. For a little while, we are part of the family that stretches from Harry to Lena to Judit and by extension to the director himself.

It's a warm, heartening, Almodovar place to be.