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(2000) (Penelope Cruz, Murilo Benício) (R)

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Comedy: A beautiful Brazilian chef leaves her adulterous husband and tries to make a go of it in America, only to find that he's followed her, hoping to rekindle their relationship.
Isabella (PENELOPE CRUZ) and Toninho Oliveira (MURILO BENÍCIO) are a married Brazilian couple who are passionately in love with each other and run a successful seaside restaurant. Only two problems mar their marriage. For one, she's grown tired of him reaping the fame and attention for their eatery when it's her food, which she prepares in the tucked away kitchen, that everyone loves.

Then there's the fact that due to her proclivity for terrible motion sickness she must be in control of everything they do, including making love. He eventually becomes tired of this and she then finds him in bed with another woman. She immediately packs her bags, flies off to America to live with her friend Monica Jones (HAROLD PERRINEAU, JR.), a flamboyant transsexual, and appeals to Yemanja - the goddess of the sea - to forever erase her love regarding Toninho.

Once in San Francisco and the company of Monica, Isabella sets out looking for a chef's job. Although she isn't successful at that, she manages to lure in Cliff Lloyd (MARK FEUERSTEIN), an ambitious TV producer who falls for both her beauty and the aroma of her cooking. Convincing the station manager, Alex Reeves (JOHN DE LANCIE), to put Isabella on TV in her own cooking show, Cliff creates a ratings sensation, "Passion Food Live."

While everything seems great for Isabella, things become complicated when Toninho abandons his restaurant, tracks her down and then gets himself and his traveling band of troubadours on her show. With Toninho trying to reconcile their marriage and Cliff trying to put his own moves on her, Isabella must decide what's right for her.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
Much like the watching of professional golf has suddenly become the rage due to the charisma and talent of Tiger Woods, televised cooking shows are certainly gaining in popularity among viewers. Having come a long way since the Galloping Gourmet and a much younger Julia Child were the mainstays of such televised culinary offerings, today's cooking fans can now chose from the myriad of TV programming including the likes of Emeril, Jacques Pepin, Ainsley Harriott and the entire Food Network channel.

Notwithstanding Child, who predates the arrival of television, it's somewhat surprising that there aren't more women involved in the hosting of such shows, particularly considering that women still cook most of the meals in today's homes.

Imagine then, if a gorgeous woman were to host such a show such as "Cooking With Cindy Crawford" or "Haute Cuisine with Halle Berry." The ratings would probably go through the roof (and only be second in popularity to Tiger making his favorite golf food recipes for a bunch of "survivors" on a desert island) due to such a show playing off the synergistic relationship between food and sex appeal.

That's part of the premise of "Woman on Top," the first of many films to showcase actress Penelope Cruz in English speaking starring roles. Of course, that gives this film more purposeful credit than is probably due, as this whimsical and fantastical comedy is as light as a feather and decidedly haphazard in its plot structure and development.

As directed by Fina Torres ("Celestial Clockwork," "Oriana"), who works from a script by Vera Blasi (her first produced screenplay), the film certainly benefits from the charisma, good looks and sex appeal emanating from Cruz who previously appeared in the English film "The Hi-Lo Country." A native Spaniard, Cruz has the beauty and presence of a movie star, and fans of her appearances in films such as "Live Flesh," "Open Your Eyes" and "All About My Mother" are probably surprised it's taken so long for the rest of the world to recognize that.

Unfortunately, beauty and budding star power alone can't carry a picture, and that's certainly the case here. Somewhat reminiscent in tone and whimsical approach to "Simply Irresistible," the abominable 1999 love and food fest starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sean Patrick Flanery, the film is light and fluffy like a soufflé, but will easily collapse in and upon itself if one doesn't gingerly step about it.

Much like "SI" with its magical crab and fairy godmother, this film isn't meant to be taken seriously even in the most remote sense of that word, with behavior and specific moments played more in a fantastical rather than realistic vein. Of course, it's obvious that not all movies are, or have to be, grounded in one hundred percent realism. Some basic underlying plots often strain credibility. Yet, the best ones nonetheless realistically play out within the confines of their particular universes.

This is one of those films that continually runs along the fine line of being comically goofy and simply being just too ridiculous, and it often stumbles, trips and falls into the latter far too often. Beyond the entire goddess of the sea bits and the TV cooking show where anything goes (and does), the plot developments that occur simply wouldn't have cut it on old TV sitcoms, let alone a big screen release.

For instance, in one scene, scores of men follow Isabella down the street where droopy flowers suddenly go erect when she passes by (a non too subtle bit of symbolism), but this never occurs again. We never know why that is (you'd think there would be progressively larger mobs after everyone sees her on TV), and it's just one of those haphazard things the filmmakers expect viewers to accept.

The film's biggest problem, however, is that despite Cruz's character's need to be "on top" in everything she does - a clever plot element that isn't played out imaginatively enough to be worthwhile - she's essentially passive in nature in relation to the main plot. Sure, she leaves her husband for America and a new life, but after that, she reacts rather than acts.

The result is that her character isn't that interesting to watch (physical beauty aside). By default, her adulterous husband - played with comic book style passion by Murilo Benício ("Amores Possiveis," "Orfeu") - gets the proactive role as he tries to win her back. While it's possible some viewers may root for them to get back together, the majority probably won't, mainly because the husband's a cad and we never sense the chemistry between them, despite being force-fed their passion early on. Yet, since that's the direction in which the story is forced, the viewer can't do anything but be dragged along, albeit reluctantly.

Beyond the two leads and Harold Perrineau, Jr. ("The Best Man," "The Edge") as the extra comic relief in the form of a flamboyant transsexual, the remaining cast members - including Mark Feurstein ("Rules of Engagement," "The Muse") as a TV producer and Isabella's latest suitor - are sketchily drawn at best and don't do much other than resemble the filler ingredients of most any recipe.

Some may argue that I'm being too critical of a film that obviously isn't intended to be taken seriously. While that may be somewhat true, the film ultimately comes off like a beautifully presented restaurant dish that's been sitting in a display case for far too long. While it may look appetizing, it turns out to be rather stale and bland in taste and it's doubtful most viewers will be going back for seconds once they realize what they've bitten into. As such, "Woman on Top" rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 28, 2000 / Posted September 22, 2000

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