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WOMAN ON TOP

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Penelope Cruz, Murilo Benicio, Mark Feuerstein, Harold Perrineau, Jr.
Director:  Fina Torres
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  Trailers, TV Spots
Length:  91 Minutes
Release Date:  February 13, 2001

Film ** 

Woman on Top is the kind of film that relies heavily on the charm of its star to transcend some rather pedestrian material.  It almost succeeds.

Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, known to fans of foreign cinema for her work with Pedro Almodovar, Bigas Luna and others, makes her mainstream American debut with this movie, a lightweight romantic comedy that mostly fails because it really is neither romantic or comic.  Considering her two love interests in the film are the husband who cheated on her and a gawky small-time television producer who sides with the suits when the cards are on the table, exactly who are we supposed to hope she’ll end up with?  (My own wish was that she would decide she was too good for either of them, but, there it is.)

The title has an amusing double meaning:  Isabella (Cruz) is a beautiful young Brazilian woman with a gift and a curse.  Her gift?  She is an absolute master of the culinary arts.  Her curse?  Acute motion sickness, which cripples her no matter what she rides in.  Her only way around it is to be in control:  she has to drive the car, she has to lead the dance, and in bed, she has to be on top.  This doesn’t set entirely well with her new husband, Toninho (Benicio), a fisherman and restaurant owner who has benefited from his wife’s gift, but is soon caught cheating on her.  “I’m a man!” he protests, as she runs away, “I have to be on top sometimes!”  His friends chide:  “How could you do that to her?  If a man truly loves a woman, he never, NEVER lets her catch him.”

With plenty of sickness bags in tow, Isabella flies to San Francisco to be with an old drag queen friend, Monica (Perrineau, in a delightful performance).  Using some ritual magic which is somewhere between sorcery and theology, she helps Isabella lose her love for Toninho so she can move forward.

The magical aspects of the film are sadly a distraction.  When she walks down the street, dozens of men suddenly start following her, and flowers spring up.  When a bead of sweat lands in the blossom adorning her garment, it blooms.  The weather reacts to everything going on in her life.  It was a little much…every such moment took me back out of the movie.

At any rate, Cliff (Feuerstein), a local TV producer in need of a new show soon discovers Isabella at a cooking class.  He, too, responds to her beauty and her cooking, and before long, Isabella’s new show is the toast of the town.  It even catches the eye of the desperate Toninho, who has come to town to try and win her back.

Much of the film from that point plays the game of who-will-she-end-up-with, but as mentioned, neither leading man is particularly appealing.  If anything, that aspect keeps the movie from falling into the cliché of the audience knowing one of the men is right, and waiting for HER to make that discovery.  It doesn’t help the poor fellows at all that Ms. Cruz is so radiant, neither one of the banal lovers even has a shot at winning our affections away from her.

I smiled quite a bit watching this movie…I only laughed a couple of times.  The story itself was not engrossing enough to keep me interested, and, as stressed, the romance part of it falls flat.  All that leaves is the charm of Ms. Cruz, who shows some talent for comic timing and illuminates the screen like the great stars of old.  Watching this, I was reminded of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, another film with a captivating star and not much else.  Audrey Hepburn’s effervescence almost elevated that picture into something worthwhile…but not quite.  Ms. Cruz, who certainly has a bright future ahead of her, can be forgiven if she couldn’t accomplish the feat, either.

Video ****

This film is a cornucopia of colors, and help make this one fantastic looking disc.  Shot after shot, frame after frame seems meticulously constructed to include a wide palate of color, and every scene is beautiful.  Images are crystal clear and sharp, and there’s no instances of grain or distortion anywhere, from lighter scenes to darker scenes.  Reds are particularly vibrant and natural looking, rendering without bleeding.  This is an excellent DVD to use as a video demo.

Audio ***1/2

I didn’t expect much from the 5.1 soundtrack, being that this was a simple romantic comedy, but I was wrong!  In addition to clear dialogue and crisp music rendering, there are more than a few instances involving weather and other natural phenomenon that bring the multiple channels to life…don’t be surprised if an occasional cue from the rear stage startles you!  The dynamic range is quite good, and utilized for maximum impact during the more dramatic scenes.  All in all, a very good listen.

Features *1/2

If you like trailers, this disc has got ‘em…in addition to two for this film plus three TV spots, there are trailers to six more Fox titles available on DVD.

Summary:

Woman on Top works as a showcase for the delightful Penelope Cruz, but not much else.  The lack of real laughs and romantic involvement make this picture too much of a burden for anyone to carry.