I love movies. In particular, I hunger for films that invite me into a world beyond the limits of mundane, material, daily existence. While Woman on Top deserves some credit for its fresh, innocent effort to make this invitation, it is disappointingly infantile once we all get to the party.
It's not for lack of a talented cast, or good screenwriting, or even smart directing, that this movie fails to charm. All the ingredients for wonderment are here, they're just poorly blended.
Isabella (Penelope Cruz) is a vibrant young Brazilian woman with a talent for cooking. (Note: the film is in English.) After marriage, she and her good-timing husband, Toninho (Murilo Benício), open a restaurant in Bahia, where Toninho basks in the glory created by Isabella's unseen labors in the kitchen. Otherwise, apparently, he's quite charming. But Isabella can't be stifled, she can't be put down. She is, after all, a woman on top, which is just how she likes it.
Alas, however, poor Toninho is too manly to be on the bottom every time, even if it does take less work. To satisfy his need for the dominant position, among other things, he climbs out the bedroom window in the still of night and into the bed of his next-door neighbor.
Naturally, Isabella wakes up minutes later and, finding her husband missing, does what any sensible woman would do: walks right over to the neighbor's apartment, lets herself in, and catches that cheating bastard red, er, handed. Then dear Isabella does some little Santeria prayer-thingie and jets off to San Francisco, where there is only one cab driver and she is a lesbian Rastafarian who works all hours and will let you drive yourself around for a hundred bucks. (Which is good because Isabella is such a sociopathic control freak that she not only needs to be on top every time she makes the lovin', she also can't ride as a passenger in any vehicle without spraying orange salsa puke all over the street--which, by the way, happens repeatedly in this film.)
"Okay," I say to myself, quietly so as not to disturb the other people in the theater, "This is a fantasy film. It's a magical romance, full of whimsy and my God! How did they manage to drive down Lombard Street at 45 miles an hour without waiting in that 30 minute line first?" But I accepted this, went with the flow so to speak, and shut my mouth.
Once she arrives at her destination, she is informed by an old man that her friend Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr., from HBO's Oz), the fabulous drag queen who invited her in the first place, is "detained." By which he means incarcerated. They don't say why, but I like to assume that she's a twenty-dollar Tenderloin streetwalker. Again, though, the fantastic bubble bursts when Monica steps out the door of the prison to find Isabella waiting for her in front of historic Fort Mason! The Golden Gate stands majestically in the background as they hug enthusiastically and here begins the continuous downhill slide of this brazenly idiotic attempt at magical realism.
Now, I can already hear about a hundred of you out there clacking away at your keyboards to write me hate spam and accuse me of having no heart, or whatever it is critics are supposed to have but don't. So let me reiterate: I love movies. In particular, I love magical realism. But if you want to see a finely crafted work of this sort, go rent Like Water for Chocolate or even A Pyromaniac's Love Story and see how the grown-ups do it.
In fairness, many of you who don't live in San Francisco probably won't notice the tremendous liberties taken with the city's geography. But it doesn't stop there. Woman on Top takes liberties with everything. There is no foundation, no realism to work magic on. The characters are hollow and daft. They fall in and out of love like children. They're well acted, but poorly sustained by the material, though the script isn't terrible; it's often incredibly funny. What really seems to be missing here is the maturity to create continuity within the fantasy--something even Saturday cartoons try to do.
Okay, so back when Isabella was stifled away in the kitchen of Toninho's restaurant in Bahia, master chefs the world over had stopped in, dined, recognized her talent, and offered her jobs. Now, in San Francisco, she's calling them on their offers. But alas, they don't remember her and she's out of luck. She can't even land a job at a fish and chips place because she insists on making the butter spicy. She is, after all, a hot Latin lady.
So she gets a job teaching at a culinary school, performs some more Santeria rituals to fall out of love with her husband, and makes herself some coffee, the scent of which is so delectably powerful that her neighbor across the street, a local television producer, falls madly in love with her and follows her to work. It must have been some potent java, because by the time she actually arrives at the cooking school she is being trailed by a hundred men.
Cliff, the TV producer (Mark Feuerstein), is so smitten that sets her up with her own prime time cooking show, which becomes the talk of the town. Toninho flies to San Francisco, where the only cabbie in town picks him up and drives him around in search of his love. Madcap craziness ensues, and they all live happily ever after.
Warning: viewing this film may be hazardous to your intelligence.
No! Is too spicy!!!
Run time: 92 mins
In Theaters: Friday 22nd September 2000
Box Office USA: $4.5M
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight
Production compaines: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 34%
Fresh: 33 Rotten: 64
IMDB: 5.2 / 10
Director: Fina Torres
Producer: Alan Poul
Screenwriter: Vera Blasi
Starring: Penélope Cruz as Isabella Oliveira, Murilo Benicio as Toninho Oliveira, Mark Feuerstein as Cliff Lloyd, John de Lancie as Alex Reeves, Anne Ramsay as TV Director, Ana Gasteyer as Claudia Hunter, Harold Perrineau Jr. as Monica Jones
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