Red hot chili pepper. Isabella (Cruz) wows San Francisco with her cooking show...

Woman on Top

dir Fina Torres
scr Vera Blasi
with Penelope Cruz, Murilo Benicio, Harold Perrineau Jr, Mark Feuerstein, John De Lancie, Anne Ramsay, Ana Gasteyer, Wagner Moura, Lazaro Ramos, Bob Greene, June A Lomena, Clea Simoes
release US 22.Sep.00; UK 26.Jan.01
Fox 00/US 2 out of 5 stars
Make no mistake: This is a vehicle for Penelope Cruz to try out her leading lady status in an American movie. There's really no other explanation for this botched romantic comedy (albeit with style and promise). No one would've made it without Cruz. She plays Isabella, a spicy Brazilian living in Bahia with her equally young, gorgeous husband Toninho (Benicio), who doesn't appreciate her. She's kept captive in the kitchen at his restaurant, where she works culinary magic and he gets all the glory. And when she catches him in flagrante with a neighbour, she boards the next flight to San Francisco to visit her transvestite best friend Monica (Perrineau) and get a job in a restaurant where she'll be appreciated. But her Latina lusciousness is swiftly noticed by a TV producer (Feuerstein), and she ends up with her own TV cooking show instead. Then Toninho arrives to win her back.

The plot is absolutely run of the mill, stirred up with a series of utterly irrelevant (and underdeveloped) complications such as Isabella's debilitating motion sickness, a sea goddess who controls everyone's destinies, and of course lots of food and music. But none of it means anything. In fact, every element in the script seems to have come straight from Rom-Com Writing 101 ... with a Latin twist. Torres' direction is at least energetic, but the only reason to watch the film is Cruz, who effortlessly holds the whole thing together (and gives us something to willingly glue our eyes to). Benicio looks good too, even if his acting is a bit wobbly. Feuerstein is adequate as the inadequate love rival. And Perrineau is fine in the standard flamboyant best friend mode. But Cruz is fantastic! Far better than this material deserves. It makes us want to revisit the work she's done for Almodovar, Trueba, Luna, Amenabar ... to see her in a good film.

[15--themes, language, sexual situations] 9.Jan.01

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2001 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall