Woman On Top

WOMAN ON TOP—-Penelope Cruz. Food. Sex. Bossa Nova. What could go wrong? Almost everything—when those ordinarily tasty ingredients are spoiled by trainee cooks seemingly mystified by utensils like script, direction, casting and editing. This good-looking but starved 2000 rom-com isn’t tasteless as in “offensive”. Beyond a few of the leading lady’s dazzling smiles, and a color-drenched visual palette, what’s served up is so anemic that it barely registers any taste at all.

Hot dish stuck stewing stale broth

‘Isabella Oliveira’ (Cruz), a gorgeous Brazilian cursed by motion sickness but blessed with a magic gift for cooking dumps her cheating spouse and moves to San Francisco. Her counter-side manner and beguiling looks breeze her into becoming the star of a cooking show that captivates the city. The show’s producer falls for her (everyone does), then her jilted husband shows up and tries to win her back.

Any hope that this will spin delicious treats from regional recipes and hungry desires—like foodie favorites Big Night, Mostly Martha/No Reservations, Tampopo or Chef—goes on a one-way trip from grocery bag to garbage can. Cruz can charm a leopard, but she still needs something beyond an idea to work with. The only noteworthy support staff she gets here comes from the visual artisans. Ace cameraman Thierry Arbogast captures the ripe costume designs of Elisabeth Tavernier and the flashy set decoration arrayed by Monica Rochlin. Some will enjoy the music arranged by Luis Bacalov.

Vera Blasi’s hackneyed screenplay is terrible, with infantile jokes, empty characterizations, a wan pass at magic realism, no authentic feeling for any element in the concoction. Characters constantly tell the heroine she’s beautiful, so many times you’d think the script was written for Barbra Streisand. Though shot in Brazil (in Salvador) and San Francisco, little attempt is made to use or suggest the flavor of either location. Fina Torres directed with a lead-weight touch for comedy or romance; timing is nowhere to be found. If the witless writing and dishrag direction weren’t sufficient self-sabotage, casting went missing in action. Murilo Benecio and Mark Feuerstein play the charm-constipated competing men; it would be hard to pick two less appealing or adept actors. As the stock ‘gay best friend’, here transsexual for no particular reason, Harold Perrineau (who is a decent actor) gets some credit: in drag sometimes he’s almost as fetching as the leading lady. Snarks safely spat, we’ll allow a teaspoon of sugar for Cruz and the cornea caressing color scheme. No doubt the project was made with intents airy, merry and sweet; the friends I watched it with liked it quite a bit.

Critics dinged it to shreds, and the $10,194,000 gross, evenly split between the US and international markets, was not sufficient return on the $8,000,000 cost. With John De Lancie, Wagner Moura and Ana Gasteyer. 91 minutes.

From that smugly provocative title on, this grinds to a get-it-over-with climax that leaves you wondering why you got involved in the first place.

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