A tawdry misfire of the lowest order, “Picking Up The Pieces” boasts plenty of significant talent put to ignoble use. Helmer Alfonso Arau attempts to bring the magical realism of “Like Water for Chocolate” to this slim spiritual satire, and the result is an awkward, unfunny comedy severely lacking in narrative or stylistic coherence. An ensemble packed with known names has guaranteed this unreleased feature an appearance on Cinemax, and will almost certainly ensure it a place in video stores, where it will quickly be relegated to back shelves with other embarrassing oddities.

A tawdry misfire of the lowest order, “Picking Up The Pieces” boasts plenty of significant talent put to ignoble use. Helmer Alfonso Arau attempts to bring the magical realism of “Like Water for Chocolate” to this slim spiritual satire, and the result is an awkward, unfunny comedy severely lacking in narrative or stylistic coherence. An ensemble packed with known names has guaranteed this unreleased feature an appearance on Cinemax, and will almost certainly ensure it a place in video stores, where it will quickly be relegated to back shelves with other embarrassing oddities.

Part of the problem, but by no means the only one, is that first-time screenwriter Bill Wilson has crafted a story that relies on a single visual joke that stops being amusing very early on. Tex Cowley (Woody Allen) has killed his philandering wife Candy (an uncredited cameo from Sharon Stone) and chopped her into pieces, one of which he loses near the sleepy desert town of El Nino, New Mexico.

Before long, Candy’s hand — with its middle finger perennially jutting out in a gesture she was fond of giving her husband — has been mistaken for the hand of the Virgin Mary, and everyone in this little town begins experiencing miracles.

The first person to recognize the hand’s power is an old blind woman who recovers her sight. The town’s cynical priest Leo Jerome (David Schwimmer) doesn’t really believe in miracles, but even he can’t deny that something’s happening when the local paraplegic sprouts new legs after praying to the Blessed Digit, and soon throngs of tourists are descending on the village, much to the pleasure of the greedy mayor (Cheech Marin).

There’s no real punchline to the joke, and the story proceeds with lots of characters and events but no core to hold it all together.

A remorseful Tex ends up in El Nino seeking to get his hands on the famous hand, and he’s followed by a dumb redneck cop (Kiefer Sutherland) who was one of Candy’s apparently infinite paramours.

Father Jerome, meanwhile, isn’t sure he likes the changes the hand has brought to the town, especially its effect on his girlfriend Desi (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), the local prostitute who’s raking in the dough but having a spiritual crisis of her own, which, like everything else in the film, remains muddy and goes nowhere.

Arau struggles with the tone of the piece right from the start, trying for the offbeat but hitting only the downbeat.

Oscar-winning lenser Vittorio Storaro gives the shots a soft glow that would be appropriate for a story about more subtle magic and miracles but not a satire about the worship of a finger in a vulgar pose.

Even Tex’s trailer looks beautiful rather than tacky. Between the direction, the cinematography and the parade of chew-the-scenery cameos from the likes of Fran Drescher and Lou Diamond Phillips, almost every scene comes off extremely heavy-handed. It all adds up to a laborious endeavor, as thematically empty as it is witless.

Picking Up The Pieces

Comedy; Cinemax; Fri., May 26, 8 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Santa Clarita Valley, California by the Kushner Locke Co. and Comala Films Prods., in association with Ostensible Prods. Executive producers, Alfonso Arau, Mimi Polk Gitlin, Peter Locke, Donald Kushner; producer, Paul L. Sandberg. Directed by Alfonso Arau; writer, Bill Wilson. [###]

Crew

Cinematography, Vittorio Storaro; production design, Denise Pizzini; costumes, Marilyn Matthews; editor, Michael R. Miller; music, Ruy Folguera; casting, Mary Gail Artz, Barbara Cohen. Running Time: 120 MIN.

Cast

Tex Cowley - Woody Allen
Leo Jerome - David Schwimmer
Desi - Maria Gracia Cucinotta
Mayor Machado - Cheech Marin
Bobo - Kiefer Sutherland
Officer Alonso - Lou Diamond Phillips
Dr. Amado - Alfonso Arau
With: Enrique Castillo, Danny de la Paz, Andy Dick, Fran Drescher, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Elliott Gould, Eddie Griffin, Mia Maestro, Lupe Ontiveros, Pepe Serna, Sharon Stone, Angelica Aragon, Jorge Cervera, Jr., O’Neal Compton, Richard Edson, Jackie Guerra, Jon Huertas, Kathy Kinney, Tony Plana, Richard Sarafian, Cecilia Tijerina.
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