Woman on Top
Directed by Fina Torres
Written by Vera Blasi

Starring Penelope Cruz, Harold Perrineau Jr., Murilo Benicio


Woman on Top

I'm trying to unscramble my notes here, but the film's bossa nova track is still dancing through my soul. Ah, here they are: If I'm reading them correctly I first ask the question, is Penelope Cruz only the most delicious thing ever or did I say that she is, in fact, a more perfect Julia Roberts? Also, should I book my flight to Bahia to find her or will she make her way to me by following the aroma of my very special homemade bagels?

These powerful questions will no doubt be resolved as soon as I find out Ms. Cruz's phone number and let her know of my interest. In the meantime I have only the memory of her film "Woman on Top" to sustain me, and unfortunately the film is something less than the woman.

Cruz is Isabella Oliveira, who from her childhood in Bahia has needed to be on top, so to speak. She throws up any time she's in motion unless she's in control -- driving, for instance. And she likes -- needs -- to be on top while making love to her macho husband Toninho (Murilo Benicio), who suffers a loss of male pride at being underneath but puts up with it until, one night, he reverses himself with another woman and is caught by Isabella.

Isabella and Toninho have a beachfront restaurant that thrives because although he is the front man she is the magnificent cook whom chefs from around the world praise when they visit. Toninho's one-night stand -- actually more like a one-minute stand -- enrages Isabella so that she takes herself off to San Francisco to find work as a chef. She moves in with her transvestite friend Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr.) and through the magic of the goddess Yemanja, who wafts the aroma of her cooking through the city, she becomes the chef on a TV show that she calls 'Passion Food.'

But of course the lovesick Toninho finds his way to San Francisco in search of her, and much of the film is set around his pursuit. It's a charming conceit, particularly with the magic realism of the goddess at work around everybody; and if only the labored script by Vera Blasi, which takes us places we've already been to five minutes earlier, and the clunky direction, by Fina Torres, could match it we might have a brilliant comic romance to light up this otherwise dismal film year.

Cruz is not only beautiful but heroic in the face of the filmmakers' mediocrity. She's incandescent whether she's scraping coconut for a dish or talking about the heat of her peppers. She has the grace of an athlete and the face of, well, a movie star. Even her voice is magic. And the combination of Cruz, her hot peppers, the aroma of her dishes, and the music behind the film, is almost, though not quite, enough to save things.    

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