I wouldn't think it would be that hard to fashion a spicy, sensual, romantic motion picture when you feature plenty of chili peppers, saturate the film with traditional Latin music, and have the lead character be portrayed by bombshell Penelope Cruz. It comes as little surprise that the new film "Woman on Top" (IMDb listing) mixes all the above ingredients to pleasing effect to produce a flawed, but dreamy romantic comedy.
Taking a cue from the 1992 import "Like Water for Chocolate", but carefully modernized to take full advantage of the downhill slide of the current Latin explosion ("Woman on Top" actually has been sitting on the distributor's shelf for some time, hence the "Xena" references and the lack of a Santana title track), Penelope Cruz stars as Isabella. As a young, gifted chef in a small coastal town in Brazil, Isabella suffers from an extreme case of motion sickness. Forced to take control over all the movement in her life (she always drives and she's always on top in bed) due to her ailment, Isabella's husband (Murilo Benicio) is driven to cheat on her, just so he can take command for once in their marriage. Heartbroken, Isabella flees to San Francisco to the awaiting arms of Monica ("Oz's" Harold Penerraiu), her transvestite best friend. Once in San Fran, Isabella's cooking enraptures all who come into contact with it, and soon Isabella has her own television show with promising ratings. Back in Brazil, Isabella's husband, now full of regret and sorrow, makes the pilgrimage to California to win back his estranged wife.
Literally bursting to the seams with life, "Woman on Top" could never be confused with the tripe that passes for romantic comedies these days ("The Tao of Steve"). Director Fina Torres goes out of her way to inject "Top" with just the right amount of whimsy and delight. The film admittedly takes some rather odd tones with the appearance of magic and religious miracles intermixed with the sticky sex. When Isabella sweats, her roses bloom when the perspiration hits them. The day she begins to cook, Isabella's confections lull the city into a Pied Piper-like mob that follows the character as she walks around town. It's these types of fantastical asides that boost some vitality into the sketchily drawn script by Vera Blasi. Director Torres knows full well that these quirky moments are her bread and butter (the one element that separates her film from the primordial ooze of the competition), and that those who lean toward a more cynical nature might be well advised to stay home. "Woman on Top" is for the believers in a higher power.
When Isabella's television show becomes a smash, and the major networks come calling, Torres fanciful direction comes to a halt. The festivity drops away as we watch the cliche network "suits" try to dilute Isabella's ethnicity. It's a bad move by the filmmakers to aspire to be more than just a light romantic comedy. Why the need to justify itself, I will never know. By keeping the payload light, Torres concocts a seductive, arousing film that dares to be completely magical. Then, for whatever reason, she places two tons of needless dramatics on the proceedings, and the film sinks into the abyss.
All this nonsense single-handedly torpedoes the film and makes "Woman on Top" less memorable that it should have been. Director Torres knows this because, in a last minute effort to rescue the proceedings, she tries to revive the magic elements. But in her haste, that tender feeling of the mysticism falls clumsily through her fingers.
It's a stroke of genius to cast burgeoning superstar Penelope Cruz as the permeating cook. Her cartoonish good looks and her undeniable charm go a long way to make her character both real and a figment of our deepest desires. No other English-speaking Latina actress working today has the skills, nor the package, for such a tall order. The camera loves Cruz. So much so that the story often takes a back seat to loving closeups of Cruz's face, backside, and the towering mane of hair that a person could get lost in. Equally good is Murilo Benicio as Isabella's husband. He takes what is the typical bastard husband role and injects it with an unusual amount of sympathy. The film can use spells and miracles to propel the story, but the actors are the ones who are making the magic in these, their breakout roles.
Filmfodder Grade: B