Woman on Top

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Ordinarily, you’d expect a movie whose opening narration declares it a story about “love, motion sickness, and the art of cooking” to be either really bad or really good. “Woman on Top” is actually neither, though its poor writing, flat acting and general ineptitude lean it more toward the “really bad” end of the scale.

Told like a fairy tale and expecting the same kind of suspension of disbelief, the film is about Brazilian beauty Isabella Oliveira (Penelope Cruz), a brilliant chef whose freedom of expression is hampered by two things: her philandering husband Toninho (Murila Benicio) and her chronic motion sickness.

The only way for her to keep from vomiting is to always be in control. In a car, she has to drive. When dancing, she has to lead. And I believe the title tells you about her sexual preferences.

Finally, after catching Toninho fooling around, she leaves him and flies to San Francisco (a very pukey flight, we are led to understand), where her childhood transvestite friend Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr.) has lived for a while (apparently long enough to lose all traces of a Brazilian accent).

In order to get over her lingering love for Toninho, Isabella makes an offering to Yemanja, the Brazilian goddess of the sea. The result is that she has no love whatsoever for Toninho — and that she is now even more irresistible to men than she used to be, and her cooking is even better than before.

She catches the eye of TV producer Cliff Lloyd (Mark Feuerstein), who gives her a 7:30 p.m. cooking show on the local station he works for. Monica joins as co-host. Meanwhile, Toninho comes to the U.S. looking for Isabella, sees her on TV, and tries to win her back.

The whole movie’s got this mystical Latin thing going, and the fairy tale method of storytelling works to an extent. We can sort of accept that a sheltered woman who’s never been to America before would speak English well enough, and have enough poise and confidence, to do her own cooking show, and that she would be so irresistible as to earn complete carte blanche over the show’s content. After all, sillier things than that happen in the centuries-old fairy tales we’re familiar with.

What we can’t accept, though, is that the show would air live instead of being pre-taped (it has to be live so that Toninho can barge in unexpectedly and boost the ratings by trying to woo Isabella on live TV), or that it would be completely dark at 7:30 p.m. in San Francisco even though it’s apparently still summer or early fall (judging by how people are dressed), or that it would then be completely LIGHT outside when they do a special show — live, still, and at 7:30 — on location at a local pier. These are minor details, but they indicate the film’s overall laziness.

The Brazilian musical score that permeates the film is enchanting.

There are a few laughs sprinkled over the movie, but not many. If it holds your attention, it will be because of the unusual story or because Penelope Cruz is hot. Her acting is nothing special here (nor is anyone else’s, especially not the broad and bland Mark Feuerstein as Cliff), but she certainly is pretty to look at. If that’s enough to get you into a theater, then hey, more power to you.

C- (; R, some fairly graphic sex scenes, including brief partial nudity, one outburst of harsh profanity, other sexual innuendo and vulgarity.)

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