(1984)3.5Wheeler Winston DixonWhat Have I Done to Deserve This? is a hilarious Pedro Almodóvar film about a spectacularly dysfunctional family living in Madrid. As is typical with early Almodóvar, the plot twists come thick and fast, and the entire film cheerfully teeters on the edge of insanity; indeed, this film is far more accessible and humane than many of the director's later works. Clearly, Almodóvar is drawing in this film to some degree on his own chaotic past. Born in the small town of Calzada de Calatrava, Almodóvar made his way to Madrid in 1968 and initially supported himself by selling used items in a flea market. Unable to attend film school, he took a job with the phone company, saved his salary, and eventually purchased a Super-8 camera. Almodóvar made a series of bizarre and entirely unconventional short films with his friends until he shot his first feature, Pepi, Luci, Bom y Otras Chicas del Montón (1980, aka Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom). Shot in 16 mm, the film was then blown up to 35 mm and became an underground hit, something like John Waters' breakthrough film, Pink Flamingos (1972). In What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Almodóvar chronicles the intersecting lives of speed-addicted domestic Gloria (Carmen Maura) and her husband, Antonio (Ángel de Andrés López), whose sons are prostitutes and drug dealers. Grandmother is mentally incompetent, Antonio is a Nazi sympathizer involved a plot of forge Hitler's nonexistent diaries, and the next-door neighbor is call girl Cristal (Verónica Forqué), who does little to ease Gloria's plight. All of this is played entirely for laughs, and somehow, it all works, making the characters in the film at once sympathetic, hilarious, and buffoonish, with the end result that the film resembles nothing so much as a live-action cartoon. Almodóvar's comic pacing never flags, unlike some of his later films, and he seems cheerfully at home in these lunatic surroundings, delivering one of the most satisfying and outrageous comedies of his long career. As he began to take his work more seriously, he lost much of his comic assurance; here, as a near-punk filmmaker, he creates a world of decadent exuberance that brims with contagious goodwill and absurdity. One of Almodóvar's best films, What Have I Done to Deserve This? is an excellent introduction to Almodóvar's work as a whole, and a reminder of a time when he did not take his work as seriously (often with unfortunate results) as he now does.