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Despite its gorgeous star, its samba rhythms and its fairy-tale whimsy, "Woman On Top" ends up a half-baked charmer.

Romance Lite

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As inexplicable as the soufflé that never quite rises, the cotton-candy light romance "Woman On Top" never succeeds in charming the pants off us, despite having all the right ingredients. After all, what could be more enticing than mixing sex, food and magical realism? Remember "Like Water For Chocolate?" In spite of more than a passing nod to that tasty and fulfilling Mexican romance, director Fina ("Oriana," "Celestial Clockwork") Torres' "Woman On Top" never quite satisfies.

In the movie's fairy-tale opening, we are given proof that Brazilian chef Isabella (Penelope Cruz) and restaurateur Toninho (Murilo Benecio) are the two prettiest people on earth and therefore are destined to be together. But Isabella has this control problem, which manifests itself as motion sickness in any moving conveyance as well as needing to be on top during lovemaking. But poor handsome Toninho sees her behavior as a threat to his macho masculinity and seeks out a more, ahem, submissive woman. When our fiery Isabella catches him in the act, she leaves the thriving restaurant they've created and heads for San Francisco. Which makes perfect sense when we discover that's where her childhood friend, now drag-queen, Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr.), happens to live.

Quicker than you can slice a ripe tomato and cook up some seafood stock, Isabella has TV producer Cliff (a nearly charmless Mark Feuerstein) eating out of her hand. Besotted with both the aroma of her cooking and her tasty looks, Cliff offers her a half-hour show called "Passion Food." For obvious reasons — not the least of which are her culinary talents — the show's a hit, garnering attention all around the world. Even in Brazil, where hubby Toninho decides it's time to reclaim his bride.

"Woman On Top" unreels predictably, serving up the usual fare for this lighthearted genre, but somehow without any real romance or comedy. Were it not for Perrineau's Monica, "Woman On Top" would register on the bottom of the laugh meter. The tedium of watching beautiful people be merely beautiful sets in quickly. To their credit, however, Torres and screenwriter Vera Blasi seem to recognize what's happening and try to spice things up by adding a dollop or two of magical realism: Flowers perk up when Isabella sashays by; the aroma of her cooking wafts in coils around people, making them instantly amorous. But even these moments of whimsy seem forced and ineffective.

Now, there's no disputing that the camera loves Cruz. She has that undeniable twinkle that appeals to both men and women. But that twinkle notwithstanding, she's capable of so much more than what she showcases here. Cruz gets little help from the script, where Blasi neglects to give us a reason to care whether Isabella reunites with Toninho or not. At one point, a character opines about Isabella walking in on her hubby and another woman by delivering this line: "When a man truly loves his wife; he never lets her catch him." No doubt intended as a comment on the "machismo" lifestyle, it loses something in the translation. Because Blasi's script gives the supporting cast next to nothing to do, Torres expends all of her creative juices on the food. In fact, it runs dangerously close to being more alluring than Cruz.

Sitting in the audience, it doesn't take long to realize just how this romantic comedy is going to end. That, of course, undermines the meager enjoyment we're extracting from various isolated scenes and characters. Despite the "topical" feminist bent of her movie's title, Torres seems uncertain about "Woman On Top's" message. The movie may have all the appearances of being a statement for female independence, but the ending certainly deflates that stance. Fulfillment seems to come only from being with a man, no matter that he is an unfaithful — though quite handsome - man.







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