Woman on Top
Screenplay : Vera Blasi
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Penélope Cruz (Isabella Oliveira), Murilo Benício (Toninho Oliveira), Harold Perrineau Jr. (Monica Jones), Mark Feuerstein (Cliff Lloyd), John de Lancie (Alex Reeves)
Fina Torres' Woman on Top is an example of a quirky, potentially charming romantic fantasy that simply tries too hard. Torres, working from an offbeat script by first-time scribe Vera Blasi, piles on the quirk from start to finish, but it never amounts to much.
The movie is held together by Spanish actress Penélope Cruz (All About My Mother), whose soft, beautiful features and lithe, enchanting voice are enough to melt just about anyone. She plays Isabella Oliveira, a young woman who lives in a small coastal town in Brazil in which all the residents regularly have ceremonies and give food offerings to Yemanja, the sea goddess, in order to ensure their fishing remains plentiful. Isabella is a gifted chef--a true artist, in fact--but she has been cursed with motion sickness. The only way to avoid getting sick is if she is in control of the motion. Thus, she must always drive when in a car and, in the case of making love with her husband, Toninho (Murilo Benício), she must be on top.
She and Toninho are deeply in love, but Isabella is troubled by some aspects of their relationship. For instance, Toninho owns a popular restaurant, but while he entertains the customers with his singing and gets all the credit, she slaves in the kitchen, making the exquisite courses that are the real reason for the restaurant's success. One night, she catches Toninho with another woman, and even though he tries to explain that it is because he feels overwhelmed by her always needing to be in control, she lights out for San Francisco to start a new life.
Isabella moves in with an old friend, Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr.), a flamboyant black drag queen (Perrineau, who is not a professional transvestite, played Mercutio as a drag queen in Baz Luhrman's 1996 version of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet). When Cliff Lloyd (Mark Feuerstein), a TV producer who lives across the street, smells Isabella's cooking, he is absolutely enchanted with her (for other reasons, as well), and convinces his senior producer to allow her to have her own evening cooking show, Passion Food Live. Of course, Isabella, with her beautiful looks and passionate style of cooking, is an instant hit.
Meanwhile, Toninho, still deeply in love with her, tracks her to San Francisco in order to woo her back, risking his restaurant in the process. Isabella has determined that she does not want Toninho anymore, and she even makes an offering to Yemanja to make her stop loving him. While Toninho constantly pines for her, Isabella begins to turn more and more to the attention Cliff is giving her, thus setting up a love triangle that will have to resolved in the third act.
There is even more to the plot than that, which is surprising given that the film is barely an hour and a half in length. Torres keeps the pace moving, utilizing every device available, from saucy Latin music to fairy-tale-like voice-over narration (courtesy of Monica), to dreamy fantasy sequences with theatrical lighting. Woman on Top is a hodge-podge of stylistic devices, but it relies most heavily on magical realism. For instance, even though it was ludicrously over the top, I couldn't help but laugh at a scene in which Isabella walks down the street to her new job as a cooking instructor, and her sheer presence is so captivating that she winds up with a crowd of men following her like stray dogs.
Torres gives the film many little moments like that, but they usually end up working more as a distancing device from the characters' emotional lives than as a spicy ingredient to heat things up. The constant infusion of whimsical fantasy is so overt that it highlights, rather than covers up, the story's two-dimensional qualities. We are never able to get fully involved in Isabella's plight because it is inflected by so many fantastical elements outside of her control. Despite a strong performance by Cruz, Isabella remains a charming pixie throughout, rather than a self-liberated woman of flesh and blood.
This is not to say the film does not have its charms. Despite the forceful nature of the quirkiness, some of it is quite appealing, and the film's short running time guarantees that it never gets too old. There are a few good comic moments, and despite his cartoonish drag queen style, Monica actually comes off as not only the most entertaining character, but also the most human, perhaps because he responds to emotional situations with reason and caring, rather than taking a food offering to an underwater sea goddess. This fantasy element is, of course, one of the main courses the film has to offer, but one wonders how effective it might have been had the filmmakers taken down the quirk level a few notches and allowed their human characters to shine in their own right.
Copyright © 2000 James Kendrick