With her lustrous long brown hair, big expressive brown eyes and voluptuous figure, Penélope Cruz is arguably one of the most beautiful actresses currently working in world cinema.
Having already conquered the movie screens in her native Spain in such various fare as the Oscar-winning BELLE EPOCH (1992), Abre los oyos/OPEN YOUR EYES (1997) and the Academy Award winning Todos sobre mi madre/ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER (1999), she made her first forays into English-language work as Billy Crudup's Mexican girlfriend in the underrated Western THE HI-LO COUNTRY (1998) and made headlines when she was cast opposite Matt Damon in ALL THE PRETTY HORSES (2000). With the feather-light but enjoyable confection WOMAN ON TOP, Cruz enjoys her first English-speaking lead and proves more than able to carry a film.
From its opening credit sequence with its Bewitched-like theme, WOMAN ON TOP announces itself as pure fun. Cruz plays Isabella, a talented Brazilian chef who suffers from motion sickness. After her marriage to the charmingly sexy Toninho (Murilo Benício) and they open a restaurant together, she gets relegated to the kitchen. Her dishes are superlative creations and win her many admirers but her headstrong attitude and her need to dominate (i.e., be the titular female) lead Toninho to stray with a neighbor. After catching her husband in flagrante delicto, Isabella hightails it to San Francisco to reunite with her childhood friend the drag queen Monica (Harold Perrineau channeling RuPaul).
Writer Vera Blasi seems to have wanted to create a modern-day romantic screwball comedy and most of the ingredients are there. Cruz has the Irene Dunne/Carole Lombard role, although she's less ditsy than those comedic actresses. Benício, who is virtually unrecognizable from his villainous turn in ORFEU, projects the appropriate Cary Grant/ William Powell magnetism. He's not only handsome and virile, he serenade Isabella with sambas in a lovely voice. Poor Mark Feuerstein is saddled with the Ralph Bellamy role of the suitor to be rejected, in this case a TV producer who hires Isabella for a local cooking show which becomes a ratings winner.
As directed by Fina Torres, WOMAN ON TOP utilizes magic (like the aroma of food prepared by Isabella) to amusing effect. In one particular sequence, Isabella prepares a simple cup of coffee whose aroma makes virtually every heterosexual male in San Francisco trail the streets after her. But there is also a darker side to the magic: when Isabella wants to fall out of love with Toninho, she turns to a Santerian priestess who offers a purportedly irreversible spell. Eventually, the situation comes down to a fight between the gods and true love. If you can't guess which wins out, you really need to see more movies.
This film is a delightful romp that is both spicy (thanks to Cruz) and sweet (its comic emphasis on true love). In addition to the leads who all acquit themselves well, there is strong characterizations from John de Lancie as the TV station manager and Anne Ramsey as an opinionated cameraperson. The luscious cinematography of Thierry Arbrogast and Luis Bacalov's delightful score conspire to create the appropriate mood. WOMAN ON TOP is lightweight but luscious and ensures that Penélope Cruz has emerged as a full-fledged star.
Rating: B- MPAA Rating: R for some strong sexuality and language Running time: 92 mins.