Woman on Top

Directed by Fina Torres
Starring: PenÚlope Cruz, Murilo BenÝcio, Harold Perrineau Jr., Mark Feuerstein, John de Lancie.
MPAA Rating: R for some strong sexuality and language.

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
September 25, 2000

For the last couple months, my favorite trailer has been for Woman on Top. It has a nice, breezy feeling, plus a lot of PenÚlope Cruz looking quite ravishing. My only concern was that this wasn't enough to sustain a feature film. Well, I was right.

Cruz plays Isabella Oliveira, a Brazilian chef who runs a restaurant with her singing husband, Toninho (Murilo BenÝcio). She has suffered from motion sickness all her life, so she always has to remain in control of her own motion. This includes during sex, where she has to be, of course, on top. Toninho eventually tires of this arrangement, and he has an affair with a neighbor. When Isabella catches him, he says that he's a man -- he needs to be on top sometimes. The relationship wasn't going that well, anyway, so she leaves for San Francisco.

She moves in with "Miss Monica" (Harold Perrineau Jr.), a drag queen that she knew while growing up. She tries to find a job as a chef, but nobody hires her. She starts working at a cooking school, but her skills in the kitchen have faded. That is, until she and Monica perform a ritual to rid her of her love for Toninho. Now more confident, she walks down the street gathering a crowd. In the crowd is local television producer Cliff Lloyd (Mark Feuerstein), who hires her on the spot to host a cooking show on his failing station.

There's a sort of interesting twist that follows, but I won't reveal it since the trailer did not. I wish I could say that it made the film interesting, but that won't happen either. Woman on Top plays like an old Hollywood musical without the music. The characters are completely shallow, but there's enough of a story to get from song to song. The few songs that Toninho sings are in Portuguese, and they are more like background material than production numbers. (Oddly enough, he only sings in Portuguese; everybody in Brazil seems to speak English to one another.)

The film is presented as a fairy tale, complete with a narration by Monica that begins and ends the picture. From that, you can see that the filmmakers weren't trying to be deep. The attempt was to make a film that showed off Cruz to American audiences, who may only know her as the nun in All About My Mother who was impregnated by a cross-dressing prostitute (don't worry, Isabella and Monica don't go farther than taking a bath together).

Cruz should fare better in more thoughtful films. She'll be in Billy Bob Thornton's All the Pretty Horses later this year, which is more likely to gain attention. Woman on Top has only managed a paltry take in its first weekend, but it at least got her American starring debut out of the way. It's all up from here, kid.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Woman on Top (1999)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Woman on Top (1999) -- VHS
Woman on Top (1999) -- DVD
Woman on Top: Soundtrack -- Compact Disc

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan