There are films that magically transport the audience to a fascinating new world where they experience wonders missing from their everyday existence. Woman on Top tries hard to be such a film, but most of its attempts to be escapist and magical only result in silliness. The world it creates is one where you’ll wish you could turn the volume down on the soundtrack and just watch the beautiful people, scenic vistas and delicious food. But the film serves best as a mural, as the motions its characters lurch through and most of its dialog are strictly of sitcom quality.
Isabella (Penelope Cruz, All About My Mother) and her husband Toninho (Murilo Benicio) run a restaurant in Bahia, a port city on the northeastern coast of Brazil. Her culinary artistry turns native spices, natural herbs, and local ingredients into spectacular gifts to the senses – especially "when shared with someone you love." But her talents are hidden back in the kitchen, while his ego is on display nightly in the dining room. Toninho loves to be in the spotlight and in command, so it annoys him that Isabella’s chronic motion sickness requires her to do the driving whenever she’s in a car, to lead when they dance. And when they make love, she must be – on top.
Eventually Toninho begins to stray, and when Isabella catches Toninho with another woman, she leaves him. Isabella escapes to San Francisco and moves in with her transvestite friend Monica (Harold Perrineau, Jr. from HBO’s Oz). She performs a voodoo-like ritual to erase her love for her philandering husband and starts life over, finding work as a cooking instructor and then as the star of "Passion Food Live", a local television show where both her cooking and her curvature are instant hits.
As with her previous feature Celestial Clockwork, director Fina Torres laces the story with mystical happenings and dramatic images – a drop of sweat causes a flower to bloom, the fragrance from Isabella’s spiced coffee entices the men of San Francisco to surge into the streets as if it were Hamelin. But the boy-loses-girl, boy pines, boy-gets-girl story line is so familiar and minimal that the result is like randomly dousing a Lake Wobegon tuna hotdish with Tabasco sauce – the additions are jarring and out of place and the film continually lurches between dreams and doldrums. Torres also tries to get a festive Rio mood cooking through the liberal application of Brazilian music on the soundtrack, but in a San Francisco locale it seems as genuine as the Las Vegas version of the Eiffel Tower.
This is Penelope Cruz’s first English-speaking role, and it’s a great argument for a return to silent films. It’s not that Cruz gives a bad performance – it’s just that her best scenes are those of the fewest words. She has a powerful and innate sensuality that translates directly without need for dialog; even her simplest cooking scenes of chopping, blending and tasting peppers are enough to raise the temperature in the back row of the theater. But too much of the film has Cruz traipsing through standard romantic comedy situations that aren’t a good use for her talents – she’s much more smoldering than sassy.
The rest of the cast are mostly placeholders. Since, after all, this is San Francisco, Perrineau does fairly generic token transvestite drag queen schtick. And as Isabella’s TV producer and part-time love interest, Mark Feurerstein seems to be continually bewildered whether the script calls for it or not. It’s been quite a while since a film begged to have an accompanying set of recipe cards. Woman on Top is a film that quite literally cooks – but only when Penelope Cruz is in the kitchen.
– Bob Aulert