Directed by: Fina Torres | 92 minutes | comedy, romance | Actors: Penélope Cruz, Murilo Benício, Harold Perrineau, Mark Feuerstein, John de Lancie, Anne Ramsay, Ana Gasteyer, Analú De Castro, Thaís de Sá Curvelo, Eliane Guttman, Eduardo Mattedi, Ana Paula Oliveira, Marilice Santos, Giba Conceição, Joaquim Pinto, Veve Calazans, June Carryl, Bob Greene, Lázaro Ramos, Wagner Moura, Cléa Simões, Tom Curti, John Crook, Jonas Bloch, Michel Bercovitch, Carlos Gregório, Malu Pessin, Daniele Suzuki, Luis Careca, Jerry Penacoli
In the 1950s, Universal Pictures released dozens of feather-light romantic comedies. These were films that relied entirely on the charm and appeal of the protagonists for their success. Film legends such as Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Sophia Loren have filled their pockets with such pictures, but in the artistic field it has hardly yielded them. These superficial little things are just as easily forgotten. Even now, films that fit this street regularly appear. Take “Woman on Top” (2000) by the Venezuelan writer and director Fina Torres, who features attractive actors such as Penelope Cruz and Murilo Benicio in a wafer-thin story. The formula works for an hour, after which the print perishes from its own superficiality.
Cruz plays Isabella, a woman from the Brazilian state of Bahia who makes her living cooking dishes that are not only delicious but also look beautiful. As soon as she starts to work with her pans again, she makes the men go crazy with her scents and colors. Isabella falls for the tough Toninho (Murilo Benicio), marries him and goes to work in his restaurant. But then she catches her husband with another woman. In her anger, she decides to visit her good friend, the transvestite Monica Jones (Harold Perrineau), in San Francisco, with whom she moves in for a while. The Americans are also quick to get the ax for Isabella’s cooking and she is asked to present a program on local television. It all starts well and good, especially when Monica is allowed to act as her sidekick. The national TV producers also want to get their share, but then they have to fit in their straightjacket. In other words: use Tabasco instead of real peppers, wear a low-cut dress and ditch the “freak” (Monica). Even her new boyfriend, the American TV producer Cliff (Mark Feuerstein) goes along. Isabella suddenly wonders whether she still likes her new commercial adventure that much …
Filmmaker Fina Torres already made an impression in 1985 with the incest drama “Oriana” written and directed by her, but she did not really do much after that. A movie here, a script there. Although she seems to have found her way again in 2008 with three new projects. “Woman on Top” is still the most commercial of this Venezuelan film. The script was written by Vera Blasi. As you’d expect in the romantic comedy genre, this film is as predictable as it gets. Now that doesn’t even have to mean the end of the world, if the film is otherwise vibrant enough. But “Woman on Top” remains – despite the wonderful South American soundtrack – a characterless whole. The intention that Torres had with her film is also not clear. Where she starts with an outspoken feminist move of her main character, she comes up with an incomprehensible ending that, on the contrary, feels particularly woman-unfriendly.
Penélope Cruz, beautiful and always radiant, does her best but can’t make it anymore. It is quite conceivable that all the men turn their heads towards her when she walks down the street and that she makes them lose their minds. But Cruz has proven in her films with Pedro Almodóvar that she can do much more than just be a sex object. Her talent is by no means fully utilized by Torres. In addition, she has hardly any chemistry with her opponent, Brazilian TV actor Murilo Benicio. The best part is for Harold Perrineau Jr. (known from the wildly popular TV series “Oz” and “Lost”). As the sympathetic transvestite Monica, he is touching and funny at the same time. All prejudices about such characters are thrown overboard – this “travo” is a person of flesh and blood and not a circus performer. A relief compared to almost all other characters in this film, who are particularly one-dimensional. Perrineau really steals every scene he is in.
Just to stay in cooking terms; “Woman on Top” is a nice try but way too bland. A little extra pepper – which you would expect from a Latin American production like this – certainly wouldn’t have hurt. With a little more guts and imagination, Fina Torres could have made a nice picture of this. Now “Woman on on “but a tasteless little thing.