Woman on Top is a summer beach novel of a movie from Venezuelan director Fina Torres. It exists mostly to showcase the unbearable lightness of being Penelope Cruz, a Madrid native who studied ballet for nine years before becoming a repertory player for Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar.
Beautiful beyond the scope of conventional measuring devices and possessing gallons of that ineffable thing that usually bespeaks stardom, Cruz appears poised to soon reach a position in Hollywood where she’s capable of making movies just as cloying and intermittently entertaining as this one—only getting paid a whole lot more money to do it.
Woman on Top crosses the breezy, brainless Hollywood romances of the ’50s and ’60s with the winking sensuality and backhanded comedy that directors like Almodovar so easily create. But Torres’ film isn’t quite as honest as a straightforward trifle like Roman Holiday, and it doesn’t have the intelligence to compete in Almodovar’s league.
It’s simply a fairy tale with a light touch, no sharp edges and very little bitter aftertaste. Woman on Top is enthusiastically preposterous, comically neo-sexist, and to a certain point, improbably ingratiating, thanks almost entirely to Cruz’s ability to mesmerize simply by standing in front of a camera.
Cruz stars as Isabella, a shy woman whom the gods have given beauty, miraculous cooking ability, and, for unclear reasons, near-constant motion sickness. The only way she can keep from puking like Linda Blair is to be in control—driving cars instead of riding, using stairs instead of elevators and always taking the titular position when she and her hubby rock the proverbial trailer.
That predilection wounds the machismo of Toninho (Murilo Benicio), her sweaty cement slab of a husband and the owner of the restaurant where she cooks. Isabella catches Toninho doing some girl like a missionary, and in shock, she flees to San Francisco to reunite with her buddy, a towering drag queen named Monica (Harold Perrineau).
Isabella then starts to assert her independence—and thanks to a magic spell, men start to worship her by the dozen. Everybody, including TV executive Cliff (Mark Feuerstein) falls under her spell, especially when Cliff gives her a local TV cooking show.
Torres loves staging fantastical sight gags, like the roses that bloom when Isabella sweats on them or the dozens of guys who follow her down the street like Boy Scouts on her way to cooking school. The confluence of food preparation, magic and sexual energy that was seen to such lovely effect in Like Water for Chocolate gets another airing.
But for a movie this interested in sex, there’s actually not much love being made. Torres relies heavily on Cruz to make the various inequities of the film hold up, and it’s only by Cruz’s ability to divert our attention (ooh, look, she’s wearing a new dress!) that Torres manages to get to the end without this flimsy, patchy story collapsing.
Perrineau steals a few scenes as the requisite effeminate-best-friend-of-the-hot-movie-heroine is supposed to do, while even Benicio holds his own, especially when he’s singing in front of the three musicians he inexplicably (and hilariously) brings with him when he travels to San Francisco in search of Isabella.
But make no mistake, this film is basically a 90-minute samba music video for Cruz. Isabella gets sick at the slightest provocation and throws up a half-dozen times—and in perhaps the most improbable part of the film, there isn’t a line of men waiting to hold her hair back when she does. Forget the Brazilian magic that Torres uses to excuse her inability to tell a coherent, confident story; the spell cast by Cruz is the only reason to see Woman on Top.
Woman on Top (R) HH1/2 Directed by Fina Torres. Starring Penelope Cruz, Murilo Benicio and Harold Perrineau Jr.