A male reviewer is at a distinct disadvantage in setting his sights on “Woman on Top,” since it’s the sort of romantic froth that’s clearly directed toward the distaff side of the audience. Perhaps the best one can do is to say that if you were enchanted by “Like Water For Chocolate” or taken in by “Bossa Nova,” there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll find this latest manipulatively “magical” love story to your liking as well.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s a good film. Far from it; it’s a cloying, calculated piece of work that wants to soar to ecstatic heights but merely comes across as overly precious and cute (as well as clumsily staged and haltingly edited). But that hasn’t stopped similar fare from winning over crowds in the past.
The central character here is Isabella Oliveira (Penelope Cruz), the sexpot wife of a handsome restaurateur named Toninho (Murilo Benicio) in a coastal Brazilian town. She also serves as chef of the family establishment, and the conceit is that she’s an absolutely fabulous cook–the reason for the place’s success–but also suffers from motion sickness so terrible that she can’t even ride in an elevator (and which requires her always to be on top when they’re intimate). After years of marriage, Toninho finds that he wants to be sexually dominant at least once, and so he has a tryst with another woman. When Isabella finds out, she abandons him and goes off to San Francisco, where she almost immediately becomes the sultry and amazingly popular hostess of a TV cooking show called “Passion Food.” Her spouse follows her there, however, and tries desperately to win her back. But by this time her callow young producer Cliff (Mark Feuerstein) has fallen for her, too. Whomever will she choose?
This precis doesn’t even touch upon the various “magical” elements of the plot. Isabella’s passionate way with food, for example, is shown to have a literally intoxicating effect on men, physically drawing them to her; ascribing such sensual power to bright red peppers and fish filets is hardly a new notion (it was the foundation of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s feeble “Simply Irresistible” of last year), and it’s not improving with repetition. In addition, both Isabella and her husband find themselves dependent upon the intercession of a Brazilian sea-goddess called Candomble, whom Toninho antagonizes to the extent that she causes his restaurant to fail, and whom his wife calls upon to destroy her love for him.
As if all this weren’t silly enough, the script throws in sweet little extras that are intended to extract sighs of pleasure from viewers but might encourage laughs or snorts instead. For example, when Toninho pursues Isabella to San Francisco, he brings along a musical ensemble that accompanies him as he serenades her (eventually the group winds up as part of the TV show, too). And, in a device which is quickly becoming so creaky that screenwriters really do have to learn to shun it, Isabella’s closest friend in California turns out to be a black travestite who calls herself Monica (Harold Perrineau, Jr.). Monica not only narrates the tale for us in archly flamboyant tones but acts throughout as a sort of wise earth-mother figure; she’s a drag version of the sort of character already done to death by Whoopi Goldberg, a walking cliche who just happens to be acted by a man.
Despite all this, some members of the audience out there might nonetheless find “Woman on Top” (the title, naturally, refers to both Isabella’s preferred sexual position and her vaguely feminist success in the larger world) a tasty treat. Certainly Cruz is a voluptuous leading lady, and Benicio a good-looking foil for her (although his dialogue delivery makes virtually all his lines look dubbed); and the Brazilian rhythms will set some toes tapping. In the case of the present viewer, however, the combination of heavily mystical romanticism and strained comedy makes for a generally unpalatable dish.