When a movie begins with a lot of narration, it's rarely a good sign. It almost invariably means the director's first cut of the picture was flaccid, and in order to shore it up, scenes from the beginning were diced into a montage to get the audience to the core of the story sooner.
"Woman on Top" begins with about 10 minutes of fairy-tale style narration, all about how a beautiful Brazilian girl named Isabella (talented Spanish enchantress Penelope Cruz) was cursed by the gods with extreme motion sickness, but blessed an ambrosial ability for the culinary arts.
The narrator goes on to explain how this girl grew up and met a sexy waiter (Murilo Benicio) whom she seduced with her cooking. They married and opened a restaurant together, where she quickly became frustrated because she did all the work and he got all the credit.
Still narrating, we're told of her take-charge technique for curing her nausea: If she drives a vehicle, leads while dancing or stays on top during sex, she doesn't get sick. But this makes Isabella's husband feels emasculated, so he cheats on her. She catches him and runs away to San Francisco, where she crashes on the couch of the long-winded narrator, her Carmen Miranda wannabe, drag queen best friend, played by Harold Perrineau, Jr. ("The Best Man," "Romeo + Juliet," and HBO's "Oz").
If you haven't lost interest by the time all this yapping is over, it won't be long, because despite Cruz's undeniable charm and irresistible magnetism, in the recipe for "Woman on Top" all the ingredients are overripe.
Full of antiquated B-comedy artifice, like the scene in which an army of dumbstruck men follows Isabella all over San Francisco, bewitched by her beauty and the smell of her cooking on her, the plot follows Isabella dumb-lucking her way into a job hosting a sexy cooking show on a local TV station, with the drag queen as a sidekick.
Soon she's a sensation and network suits are horning in on her program, wanting to make her "less ethnic" so they can take the show nationwide.
Meanwhile, director Fina Torres ("Celestial Clockwork") keeps cutting back to the abandoned husband in Brazil for reasons that don't become apparent until half way through the movie when he hops a plane to S.F. -- with a mariachi band in tow -- to try to win Isabella back.
"Woman on Top" uses food as a sensual metaphor. But this is no "Like Water For Chocolate." It's not even a "Simply Irresistible," that failed enchanted cooking romance starring Sarah Michelle Gellar last year.
This picture has no spirit, no soul and no magic -- just store-bought Hollywood voodoo of the quality performed by booga-booga slapstick shamen in movies like "Weekend at Bernie's 2."
Isabella's motion sickness is nothing but an irrelevant gimmick, one of many used as crutches when the plot slows down. Another example: The cooking show is broadcast live, for no logical reason other than having the finale take place in front of a surrogate audience.
The picture's structure is nonsensical and riddled with blatant continuity errors (at a rate of about one for every other scene), and it's so under-written that even Isabella's romantic prospects are laughably pathetic. There's a high-strung young TV producer (Mark Feuerstein, "Practical Magic") set up as the husband's rival, but he's such a creep the audience starts squirming the instant he makes a pass at her.
Cruz -- who is a justifiably huge star in Spain ("All About My Mother," "Open Your Eyes") but has only had supporting roles in Hollywood ("Hi-Lo Country") -- rises above the cinderblock of a script with her effortlessly flirty allure. The versatile Perrineau nails the sham-glam faaabulousness of her cross-dressing cohort. But while "Woman on Top" is exploding with potential, nothing else about this movie rings true, romantic or even funny.
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: 1.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 34%
Fresh: 33 Rotten: 64
IMDB: 5.2 / 10
Director: Fina Torres
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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