Woman On Top

on September 22, 2000 by Annlee Ellingson
   The title "Woman on Top" means exactly what you think it does. Cursed with acute motion sickness since she was a little girl, Isabella ("All About My Mother's" Penelope Cruz) can only control it when she's controlling her motion: She always drives, always leads when dancing and always stays on top when, well, you know what. These tendencies cause her macho Brazilian husband Tonino (Murilo Benecio) to stray, and, disillusioned by his infidelity and his habit of cooping her up in his restaurant kitchen while he takes credit for her exquisite cuisine, Isabella disappears, moving to San Francisco to pursue a career as a professional chef.

   Accepting a small position as a teacher at a culinary school, Isabella soon attracts the attention of a struggling television producer named Cliff, who promptly offers her her own cooking show. Her spicy food and sensuality make her something of a local celebrity, and eventually the network executives come knocking at her door. Meanwhile, Tonino has figured out where she is and is constantly serenading her in the hopes of rekindling their love.

   Cruz is stunning in the role--innocent and vulnerable yet possessing a mature grace and determined strength, all while sizzling with unchecked sensuality. Remarkably, director Fina Torres' ("Celestial Clockwork") graceful touch occasionally eclipses even her muse. One can practically taste Isabella's culinary creations and literally feel the primal beat of Brazil.

   But it's her moments of magic that make "Woman on Top" so special: The scent from Isabella's kitchen wafts across the city; sparkly fish swim in an otherwise static painting; Isabella herself sinks to the bottom of the sea to confront the goddess who keeps her from her love.

   This kind of innocent vision leaves itself open to inherent problems: In the way he's written and performed, Cliff, who serves as a romantic alternative for Isabella, shares little onscreen chemistry with her, and his infatuation with her borders on clownish. Still, Fox Searchlight is perceptive in pushing this as their most important summer release. Surely her first starring role in an English-language film will propel Cruz to stardom among the art-house crowds who have enjoyed her Spanish films thus far. Starring Penelope Cruz and Murilo Benecio. Directed by Fina Torres. Written by Vera Blasi and June Roberts. Produced by Alan Poul. A Fox Searchlight release. Romantic comedy. Rated R for some strong sexuality and language. Running time: 90 min

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