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'Top': Salivating Over a Saucy Dish

By Rita Kempley
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)
Words are minced, peppers are peeled, and chef's hats rise up like eager souffles in "Woman on Top," a skimpily scripted, hot-to-trotsy food/sex farce. The film is definitely a feast for the senses, what with the ceaseless samba music, bold color scheme and mingling of sweaty flesh. But the mind will be starved for subtlety, wit and substance.

Spanish screen siren Penelope Cruz ("All About My Mother") wields the whisk in her English-language debut, unevenly directed by Venezuelan Fina Torres ("Celestial Clockwork") from Brazilian Vera Blasi's screenplay. An ineffectual attempt to wed magic realism with mainstream romantic comedy, the film falters like the marriage of the heroine, Isabella, to the macho hunko Toninho (Brazilian star Murilo Benicio).

Isabella, a gifted chef at Toninho's Brazilian seaside restaurant, is so gorgeous that men begin to salivate before they even get a whiff of her enticing dishes. Like the cuisine in the far superior "Like Water for Chocolate," Isabella's cooking is inspired by her passions. One is chili pepper, an ingredient of both her shrimp saute and her imaginative foreplay.

Unfortunately there is a fly in the paella. Isabella, who suffers from severe motion sickness, can travel by car only if she does the driving. When she and Toninho go out dancing, she must lead lest she develop nausea. And when it comes to the horizontal samba, the title says it all. Toninho, fearing for his manhood, decides to do a little missionary work with the woman next door.

Upon discovering him in the act, Isabella flees to San Francisco, moves in with an American friend, the cross-dressing Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr.), and shortly thereafter is discovered by a local TV producer, the smitten Cliff (Mark Feuerstein), who gives Isabella her own cooking show.

Though she hasn't a lick of broadcast experience, the sultry chef is an overnight sensation. "The ribs and seeds of the chilis is where the fire comes from," she coos while peeling open a red pepper. The camera loves Isabella, especially her cleavage. All of San Francisco is mesmerized. Even Bud-lovers in sports bars can't take their eyes off the screen as she caresses a pair of plump tomatoes or squeezes the milk from a tube of firmly packed coconut meat.

Toninho soon shows up and tries to win Isabella back with the aid of a trio of musicians who never leave his side as he follows her around the city, singing samba tunes. If that weren't preposterous enough, the Brazilian village's resident sea goddess, Yemanja, plays a large role in the fishy outcome of the story.

The filmmakers seem to think they've crafted a feminist fairy tale. Maybe in Brazil, Isabella might be regarded as a Betty Friedan figure, but here she's Charo in an apron. The moral of the story: A watched sexpot may simmer, but it never boils.

Woman on Top (83 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexuality and language.


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