Boldly segueing from art to kitsch, she follows her serious, Oscar-winning turn in "Pollock" with an absolute blast of a performance as a pre-op male-to-female transsexual in Susan Seidelman's gender-bending farce "Gaudi Afternoon".
She's easily the best thing about this otherwise flaky comedy -- set against the whimsical backdrop of Antonio Gaudi's art nouveau architecture -- which starts off energetically but rapidly wears out its forcefully quirky welcome.
Given its Los Angeles debut at this year's Outfest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, the as-yet-to-be-picked-up film will have a tough time breaking out of its niche confines in spite of a high-profile cast.
The always game Judy Davis, last seen on the small screen as Judy Garland, dresses down as Cassandra Reilly, a rather frumpy American translator working in Barcelona, Spain, where she's having trouble finding the right English words for her current literary assignment.
As if she isn't distracted enough already, along comes the enigmatic Frankie Stevens (Harden), fresh from San Francisco and striking an unmistakably '40s film noir femme fatale pose as she approaches Cassandra with an unusual job offer.
But what initially was pitched as a little translation work gets more convoluted by the minute, as Cassandra soon finds herself embroiled in a dysfunctional family drama involving Frankie's estranged spouse, Ben (Lili Taylor), their bratty daughter Delilah (Courtney Jines) and Ben's New Age-y girlfriend April (Juliette Lewis), just for starters.
With its colorful assortment of gay, bisexual and transgender characters, "Gaudi Afternoon", based on a 1990 novel of the same name by Barbara Wilson, is the kind of material that's desperately seeking Almodovar.
While Seidelman at first seems to have rediscovered that "Desperately Seeking Susan" spark, she ends up going all Spielberg, shifting awkwardly into a mawkishly sentimental third act.
By that point, even Harden can't save the show, though she comes mighty close. With her face virtually encased in pancake and her voice affecting a husky, uncertain breathiness, she's a comic bundle of sexual confusion. If you hadn't seen her before, you'd swear her role was played by a guy.
Chameleon Davis, meanwhile, whose performance here is very Anne Bancroft, is fine, too, though she is stifled by her essentially one-note character.
Also amusing is Lewis as the touchy-feely April Schauer (get it?), while Taylor is uncomfortably off as the butch Ben (formerly Bernadette).
But if the artificially offbeat film disappoints, at least its title delivers the goods. Taking full advantage of its location, "Gaudi Afternoon" serves as a handy Gaudi primer, setting numerous scenes against the striking, capricious structures that should have served as a blueprint for the picture's ramshackle design.
Director: Susan Seidelman
Screenwriters: James Myhre, Joaquin Oristrell
Based on the novel by: Barbara Wilson
Producer: Andres Vicente Gomez
Executive producer: Frida Torresblanco
Director of photography: Jose Maria Civit
Art director: Antxon Gomez
Editor: Deirdre Slevin
Costume designers: Yvonne Blake, Antonia Marques
Music: Bernardo Bonezzi
Cassandra Reilly: Judy Davis
Frankie Stevens: Marcia Gay Harden
Ben Harris: Lili Taylor
April Schauer: Juliette Lewis
Carmen: Maria Barranco
Hamilton Kincaid: Christopher Bowen
Delilah Stevens: Courtney Jines
Running time -- 93 minutes
No MPAA rating