According to the old saying — and probably that throwback to the 1950s book, “The Rules” — the way to a man’s heart is to his stomach. Maybe so, but it’s just not fair to other women that a natural, world-class chef like Isabella (Penelope Cruz) is also an unbelievably gorgeous, raven-haired Brazilian beauty. Isabella’s culinary skills certainly aren’t the first things hunky restaurant owner Toninho (Murilo Benicio) notices, although they sure do come in handy. Soon, an ecstatic Toninho is schmoozing with the customers of his packed seafood restaurant, while his lovely bride anonymously sweats it out in the kitchen. One passionate kiss from Toninho, however, and all of Isabella’s simmering resentments melt away like butter on steaming clams.
Yet, almost as a curse to counterbalance her beauty, Isabella is afflicted with a severe case of motion sickness. Cars, planes, elevators, even sex turns the fetching goddess into a sweaty, nauseous mess…unless she’s in control of the motion. Yes, as beautiful as Isabella is, the only way she can make love is if she’s on top. This would be a “sacrifice” 99.99% of all men would be more than willing to make. Not Toninho, who considers this restriction a swipe at his manhood…and eventually gets caught having an affair.
Devastated, Isabella flees to San Francisco, crashing at her transvestite best friend Monica’s pad and, following a voodoo prayer to a goddess of the sea, swears off Toninho. Eventually, she catches the eye and, once she cooks for him, the nose and taste buds of struggling television producer Cliff (Mark Feuerstein). Before she can say, “stir for thirty seconds,” she’s the host of “Passion Food Live,” a Brazilian-themed cooking show that rockets up the ratings charts thanks to her unbelievable sex appeal. Things become more complicated than a twelve course meal, however, when Toninho arrives, desperate to atone for his mistake and save his marriage.
Sexy, funny and fun, this is a fantastic date movie because it’s a win-win fantasy situation for both partners. Guys can drool guilt-free over Ms. Cruz, who is every bit the seductive Pied-Piper the film literally portrays her as in one hilarious scene. Their dates, meanwhile, can fantasize about Benicio, who is such the stereotypically passionate Latin Lover — passionate, romantic, sings and cooks! — that he’s practically a caricature.
Director Fina Torres sprinkles Vera Blasi’s script with a plethora of sweetly subtle sight gags and a dash of lighthearted fantasy that allows her to get away with a lot. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast fills the screen with so many bright colors, meanwhile, the film plays like a fiesta.
“Woman on Top” bogs down somewhat when it drifts from the main love story, however. Both Monica, (Harold Perrineau, Jr.) a large, African-American transvestite, and Cliff suffer from the “seen-it-too-many-times” syndrome. Similarly, the heavy-handed portrayal of network interference when “Passion Food Live” goes national is tiresome and far too on-the-nose, if probably accurate.
At its most elementary level, “Woman On Top” is about as basic as it gets: boy meets girl, boy screws up and loses girl, boy gets girl again. It would have been oh-so-easy for Torres to turn this formula into a typical romantic comedy; the movie version of leftover tuna casserole. Thankfully, she takes a cupboard full of attractive ingredients — Cruz and Benicio — mixes them with a rack-full of creative visual spices and simmers it all over a passionate Bossa Nova-tinged soundtrack. The result is still tuna casserole, not filet mignon. But at least this tuna casserole is the tasty sort of dish the lovely Isabella might whip up.