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Appetizing but Not Filling

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2000


    'Woman On Top' Penelope Cruz leaves men panting in her wake in "Woman on Top." (by Phil Bray/Fox Searchlight)
The recipe for "Woman on Top" is simple: Serve Penelope Cruz on a bed of rapture, garnished with breathy, sultry samba music.

As for the story, why clutter up a simple dish? First-time filmmakers Fina Torres (the director) and Vera Blasi (the writer) believe that Cruz's sensuality works on its own.

Well, there is something of a story. In this modernized fairy tale, Cruz is acting a part and everything. She's Isabella, a restaurant chef par excellence who escapes a claustrophobic marriage in Brazil to become a sexy Julia Child-type celebrity in San Francisco.

Her co-restaurateur and husband, Toninho (Murilo Benicio), who keeps her in the kitchen while he performs samba songs for the customers, has strayed with another woman. The devastated Isabella packs her bags, enlists a practitioner of Candomble (the Brazilian equivalent of voodoo) to purge all lingering love for her husband and starts her new life.

Cliff (Mark Feuerstein), a smitten TV producer, lets Isabella star in her own cooking show, dispensing spicy recipes with smoldering sensuality. Cliff even lets Isabella hire her transvestite friend Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr.) as a sidekick.

Toninho, who follows her to San Francisco, has his work cut out for him. He pursues her everywhere, accompanied by a three-man combo that plays sambas on demand. When he invades the set one night, begging his way back into Isabella's life, the producers like the "act" and invite Toninho to be part of the ensemble.

Though gentle and funny in places (often thanks to Perrineau's flamboyant antics), "Woman on Top" is never the magic charmer it sets out to be. It's sensual, but not smolderingly so. It's a potboiler, not a sultry steamer. And the food-as-love metaphor works far more powerfully in movies such as "Tampopo," "Like Water for Chocolate" and "Babette's Feast."

As for the running gag – that people practically trip over themselves to be near Isabella – it gets old, far sooner than the filmmakers realize. Cruz is undeniably attractive. She has unbelievable eyes, lips and presence, if you're going to give her credit for what God gave her. But the question is, are you happy to spend the entire movie worshiping her beauty and celebrating her character's self-actualization, or do you want a little more on your plate?

WOMAN ON TOP (R, 91 minutes) - Contains sexual situations.


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