(director: Fina Torres; screenwriter: Vera Blasi; cinematographer: Thierry Arbogast; editor: Leslie Jones; cast: Penélope Cruz (Isabella Oliveira), Murilo Benício (Toninho Oliveira), Harold Perrineau Jr. (Monica Jones), Mark Feurerstein (Cliff Lloyd), John De Lancie (Alex, TV station manager), Anne Ramsay (TV director), Ana Gasteyer (Claudia Hunter); Runtime: 83; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 1999)

“A sensuous romantic comedy, about as appealing as your average lightweight TV sitcom.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A sensuous romantic comedy, about as appealing as your average lightweight TV sitcom. It’s the kind of fluff that I find hard to stomach. The film plans to exploit the beauty and sweetness of its delicious star Penélope Cruz who plays a Brazilian chef with a magical touch for bringing out the spices in her preparations, as the aromas just sensually waft from her cooking pot.

Penélope was wonderful in Pedro Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother,” but here she is so visible in such a stale story where she can only smile and tease the audience by having us see a constant barrage of cleavage shots as she bends over when cooking. The best you can say about her, is that she’s not to blame for this picture being so off. This sex exploitation film is delivered without nudity or sex, which in my opinion makes it worst than a raunchy film that, at least, delivers what it says it will.

The story is all about the love, motion sickness, and cooking ability of Isabella (Cruz), who is born in Bahia, Brazil, and learns to cook at an early age from her parents’ cook. To cure her motion sickness her parents tried every remedy, until they went to a spiritualist who prayed to the goddess of the sea for her cure. She is able to control it now as long as she doesn’t drive a car, ride elevators, follow in dancing, and is the ‘woman on top’ when making love. In other words, she has to be in control of things.

In Isabella’s small fishing town she falls in love with a handsome macho Latin waiter, Toninho Oliveira (Murilo Benício), and marries him. They open up a successful restaurant where she slaves away in the kitchen but he gets all the credit, even though he’s a loafer. One night she catches him in bed with another girl and decides to leave for San Francisco. We don’t see her in flight, so I can’t tell how she handled her motion sickness problem — unless she was the plane’s pilot and therefore in control.

Isabella visits her cross-dresser friend Monica’s (Harold Perrineau Jr.) apartment, and blends right into the San Francisco scene.

To cast away her love for the irresistible Toninho Isabella calls her spiritualist friend to cast an irreversible spell, freeing her from ever loving him again. Her luck changes when a local TV producer Cliff (Mark Feurerstein) gets a whiff of her cooking and storms into her cooking class as if he were in a spell and presents her with her own live TV cooking show.

You can really write the script from here on by yourself…as the despondent Toninho begins to realize what a good thing he had, but things continue to go bad for him: there is a curse he caused on the fishing in his village, there is no chef to replace his wife, and the restaurant is about to close for good. So he comes to San Francisco, figuring he can charm her again. He brings along with him his guitar playing musicians — the ones he used when courting her, when he serenaded under her window.

Toninho sees his wife on TV with Monica as her sidekick. Also, the yuppie TV producer is chasing after her and she is no longer charmed by him. He sneaks on her TV show set and tries to woo her with his musical group and with him singing corny love songs, the ratings go up and he’s hired as a regular. The show gets so big, that the network honchos come onboard taking it national. But they want to change things such as: the ethnic flavor of the show, to get rid of Monica because he’s a freak, have Isabella cook with Tabasco instead of the Brazilian peppers she uses, and they change her ethnic dresses to low-cut Vanna White type of sexy dresses. Cliff, her would-be boyfriend, acts creepy and sides with the network big-shots, even though he loved everything she did. These TV scenes were stereotype scenes of TV honchos.

Warning: spoiler to follow.

I’m sure that I’m not spoiling the ending for anyone, when I tell you that Toninho reforms his macho ways and together they cook up a meal that breaks her spell of loving him again.

This film might as well have been made by the same network guys featured in this film, because it doesn’t look or feel like an Almodóvar film. It’s more like a futile commercial film that is more annoying than charming and more dull than chic as it searches for box office heaven, with only its sexy star to guide it.

Woman on Top Poster