The opening fifteen minutes of “The Queen of Spain” promise a delightfully retrograde romp back in time to the Technicolor pleasures of that golden moment in the mid-1950s when Hollywood came to Spain. Glamorous movie stars, blacklisted writers, campy production designers, fabulous sets, and hunky grips all coming together to make movies and snub their noses at Generalissimo Franco. Then the plot kicks in, and it becomes clear Fernando Trueba is having so much fun revisiting characters from 1998’s “The Girl of Your Dreams” that he’s forgotten how to build a story out of multiple strands and make it all work. Penélope Cruz is always irresistible and the cast of Spanish greats know how to chew the scenery, but this overlong semi-farce with serious overtones seems mostly designed for the local blue-rinse crowd.
For those needing a refresher course, in “A Girl of Your Dreams,” a Spanish film crew led by director Blas Fontiveros (Antonio Resines) shoots a movie in Nazi Germany with upcoming star Macarena Granada (Cruz). Once there, they help rescue a Jewish extra from being sent to the concentration camps. That’s where the earlier film ended, but in the follow-up, thanks to a delightfully clever credit sequence mixing archival footage with well-handled Zelig-like recreations, Trueba brings history forward to 1956, when Franco opened the way for Americans to shoot epics in Madrid’s studios.
Hollywood mogul Sam Spiegelman (Arturo Ripstein) is starting production on a big-budget costumer about Queen Isabella starring Macarena, who’ll return to Spain after huge success in the States. Just before her arrival, Blas shows up in Madrid like a ghost from the past, causing shock and emotion among friends and colleagues who thought him long dead. The story is simple (if totally unbelievable): After incarceration in Mathausen for his role in helping the Jewish extra escape, Blas went to France, and upon learning everyone in Spain thought he was killed, this former top director decided to disappear. Now he hears that Macarena is coming back, and he wants to see her again.
Things aren’t going so smoothly on set. Legendary director John Scott (Clive Revill) is too drunk to work most days, so screenwriter Jordan Berman (Mandy Patinkin, subdued) is the one calling, “Action!” They need a second-unit director and hire Blas, but he’s arrested on the orders of his ex-wife’s fascist husband, and forced to work constructing Franco’s giant stone cross monument in the Valle de los Caídos. Still harboring a soft spot for her former lover, anti-Franco Macarena — together with fellow cast and crew members — hatches a plot to rescue him. Meanwhile, the sultry star has her hungry eyes on smoldering grip Leo (Chino Darín).
Trueba loads his movie with so many inside jokes, it would be impossible to count them all. John Scott is a John Ford knock-off complete with eye-patch, except Ford was a brilliant director until his last completed picture, not some alcoholic has-been. Patinkin’s character turns out to be a victim of the McCarthy witch hunt, and everyone makes knowing references to insider Hollywood gossip, particularly of the “who’s only pretending to be straight” variety. On that note, Cary Elwes has a small but tediously overplayed role as Macarena’s predatory gay wooden leading man, Gary Jones.
If Trueba kept it all as a rescue caper, throwing in just enough camp and political commentary to ensure we know he’s anti-fascist, then “The Queen of Spain” could have been a diverting frolic channeling the days when screen glamor meant something. Instead, he careens from the seriousness of Blas’ situation to Macarena making hay with Leo behind the studio flats, tossing in further plot diversions that make “Noises Off” feel focused by comparison. Sure it’s meant to be taken in good fun, but the energy keeps getting undercut by over-broad comedy and uninspired scenes, such as a limp musical number in the Isabella movie.
Fortunately, Cruz effortlessly inhabits the world of a 1950s movie queen, and the costumes and production design conspire to make her look glorious — all the more reason to criticize Elwes’ hamminess. The other Spanish thesps seem to be having a blast, but they’re not exactly being challenged. Art direction is suitably rich and pleasing to watch.