Woman On Top

Laura Clifford
Robin Clifford

Beautiful Isabella (Penelope Cruz, "All About My Mother") is gifted with the art of cooking but cursed with severe motion sickness. Things would seem perfect when she marries handsome restaurant owner Toninho (Murilo Benicio), but she ends up holed away in his kitchen while he charms his patrons outside. When Toninho's macho need to be on top causes him to stray, Isabella flees Brazil for San Francisco and her childhood friend Monica (Harold Perrineau, Jr., "The Best Man"). There she becomes the star of her own television show, 'Passion Food,' while Toninho tries to win her back in "Woman On Top."

"Woman On Top" is a "Like Water for Chocolate" wannabe that isn't. While it features cooking as a metaphor for love and has plenty of Latin fantasy elements it just doesn't have the richness of Arau's film. And the motion sickness plot element is just plain weird.

Cruz is gorgeous (in one scene, every man that crosses her path ends up following her right into her cooking school class) and it's enjoyable watching her whip up Brazilian dishes heavy on the chilies, but Isabella isn't really that interesting of a character. It's actually more involving seeing Toninho develop from a careless charmer to a devoted husband (and Brazilian actor Benicio is quite easy on the eyes, resembling a Latin version of Russell Crowe). Harold Perrineau is delightful as drag queen Monica who revels in dressing up in traditional Brazilian costume to serve as Isabella's cooking sidekick, yet he doesn't provide his character with the appropriate accent. Mark Feuerstein ("Rules of Engagement") mostly mugs for the camera as Isabella's producer and new love interest. Anne Ramsay ("A League of Their Own") stands out in a tiny role as the TV show's director with her witty quips.

The script is the first produced work of Brazilian Vera Blasi, who suffers from motion sickness herself (which at least explains, if not excuses, that element). The story is told like a fairy tale, yet relies far too heavily on voiceover narration. The film was directed by Venezuelan Fina Torres ("Celestial Clockwork"), so two Latin women have given Spanish star Cruz her first English language lead.

The film pops with color as shot by award winning cinematographer Thierry Arbogast ("The Fifth Element"), yet for a film about Brazilian soul, we're shown little of the country. San Francisco is somewhat better represented. Lots of traditional Brazilian music is provided, as performed by Murilo Benicio while rewooing his wife.

While this lightweight Penelope Cruz vehicle has its charms it seems to take forever to reach a forgone conclusion. "Woman on Top" wafts away like the aromas seen coming from Isabella's cooking pots.


Isabella (Penelope Cruz) is a beautiful, talented chef living in contented bliss with her husband, Toninho (Murilo Benicio), at their little restaurant in the Brazilian port town of Bahia. But, while Isabella works in isolation in the kitchen, Toninho sings and socializes with the patrons nightly. The pretty cook can deal with her husband's flirtations as long as he can live with her affliction: severe motion sickness. It's a condition so bad that she must be in control of her movements at all times, or get very sick. She must drive when they go out; she can't take the elevator; and, she must lead when they dance. Even worse for the macho Toninho, Isabella must be on top when they make love. This last fact drives the couple apart and Isabelle flees to San Francisco to seek a place to practice her culinary skills in "Woman On Top."

Director Fina Torres ("Celestial Clockwork") uses the screenplay by newcomer Vera Blasi to create a magical little love story that owes much more than a passing nod to the 1992 food and fantasy film by Alfonso Arau, "Like Water For Chocolate." In both films, the cuisine is a character unto itself that, in the hands of the magical maestro, takes on a sensuality that will "fire the blood and satisfy the heart." The Arau film is more involving in its combination of complex and numerous characters and a wonderfully lyrical mysticism that makes the film so magical.

Blasi's original story is more forced in it situational setup of plot devices as the fantasy story unfolds. For example, how many people live in obscure little Brazilian towns, but run off to San Francisco when the marriage breaks up? This is a real stretch for the imagination and is just one of the problems with the story. There is the best "girl" friend, Monica Jones (a marvelous performance by Harold Perrineau, Jr.), who is supposed to be a childhood friend of Isabella's, but seems to be there just to be the off-beat transvestite comic relief. Isabella's success and popularity, especially among the guys in San Francisco, is made believable only because of the charisma of Cruz.

The love story that is drawn through the film does have a certain amount of charm as Toninho realizes his loss when Isabella leaves after catching him with another woman (where he got to be on top). When the despondent restaurateur learns where his true love has fled, he makes a beeline to the US to find her. Isabella has had a spell cast to make her fall out of love with Toninho, but that won't stop the passionate Brazilian as he risks anything, including arrest and incarceration, to get Isabella back. Toninho is aided in his quest by a three-piece band that (magically, of course) accompany him in his continuous serenades to the beautiful Isabella. The love story is sweet and the music, especially Toninho's love songs, helps set the romantic mood.

The acting will not bring any attention at the end of the year. Cruz is lovely to look at and has a real presence on the screen, but the actress is more eye candy than character. Don't get me wrong, Isabella is a beautiful object of affection. And, she can cook! Murilo Benicio is a handsome, personable young actor and does a fine job as the tortured Toninho. When he realizes just what he lost when Isabella left him, nothing else matters as he does all he can to get her back. Harold Perrineau, Jr. (TV's "Oz") gets lots of opportunities to camp it up as Isabella's best friend, though the point of the character is lost to me, except as comic relief. There is little, if any, other character development by the rest of the supporting cast, which is a problem.

Food may be the focus of the film, but it is obvious that cinematographer Thierry Arbogast has a crush, visually at least, on Cruz. The camera lovingly captures every move and expression of the actress in a way that is almost a caress. This helps to build the sensuality of the film while giving the guys in the audience a chance to linger awhile and gaze at one of the world's most beautiful women. Other tech credits are first rate with costumer Elisabeth Tavernier giving Cruz a complimentary look and she has some fun dressing up Monica. Production design by Philippe Chiffre is slick, especially with the sets for Isabella's cooking show.

The music used in "Woman On Top" must be noted, too. Classic Brazilian songs from the '40s and later are used to wonderful effect, with Toninho using the soulful romantic ballads as tools to get his beloved wife back, even if on her terms. Scoring, by Oscar-winner Luis Bacalov, carries the Latino music theme through the whole film that blends nicely with the songs.

The forced artificiality of much of the story tends to dim the shine of the sweet romance that develops between Isabella and Toninho. The overt magical references and effects, the glitter of Isabella's sudden fame on TV, thoughtless network honchos, spell casting and other such devices end up hurting the film, making its 92 minute run time seem excessive.

Penelope Cruz has been gaining popularity internationally with her collaborations with Spanish directors Pedro Almodovar and Fernando Trueba. The actress is stunningly beautiful and casts a sensuous shadow across any role she plays. With "Woman On Top," she gets the chance star in a film that is a showcase for her beauty and her entry into the great American star machine.

While "Woman On Top" may not be all that it could have been - a more mature screenplay that delved into relationships, magical or not, would have helped - it does has a gentle nature that helps cancel out some of the film's problems, but not all. It just doesn't cast a spell on me. I give it a C+.

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