[box cover]

Woman on Top

Fox Home Video

Starring Penelope Cruz, Murilo Benício, and Harold Perrineau Jr.

Written by Vera Blasi
Directed by Fina Torres

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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

The perils of Penelope, indeed.

So but here we have Woman on Top, a wannabe "magic realism" romantic comedy starring the fetching Penelope Cruz. The quick breakdown:

Positives: Titular star Cruz is, as mentioned, utterly fetching, even when she vomits (which is surprisingly often; see story synopsis below for context). The Latin music is sensual and light — I'd go so far as to call it a collection-worthy soundtrack if you're into that Antonio Carlos Jobim sound. And the actors play their parts with a confident, gentle touch. (Among the supporting cast is Star Trek's "Q," Mr. John de Lancie.)

However: The humor, script, cinematography and visual metaphors are, well, they're pretty damned weak — romance-novel weak, to be precise, which is of course not an accident. And to my jaded and love-scarred eyes, Woman on Top misses the mark on a lot of male-female relationship details, which I'll sort of get into below. Directed by Fina Torres from a Vera Blasi script. Rated R, which for you droolers among the DVD Journal readership isn't nearly as promising as it sounds.


The Woman on Top FAQ

I. Say, Alexandra — what's "magic realism"?

Well, gentle reader, "magic realism" is one of those semi-recent film classifications that's sort of hard to quantify — unlike, say, "comedy" or "science fiction" or "Super Mega Action!" Based on my own experiences watching art films and being talked at by snobs, I have come to understand that "magic realism" involves:

  1. improbably beautiful, wine-commercial-ish cinematography with plenty of warm-sunset and full-moon lighting;
  2. lustful urges experienced in said landscape;
  3. silly, mythologically specious magical events that aren't questioned for a cold minute by the film's protagonists;
  4. A bulimic's obsession with food and wine: People must always be drinking and eating, preparing to drink and eat, cleaning up after drinking and eating, and/or singing while drinking and eating;
  5. and romantic and tragic situations bordering on the ludicrous.

The granddaddy of this genre is, of course, Like Water for Chocolate, Alfonso Arau's surreal tale of lust and food. (Sadly, Arau pretty much torpedoed the genre he pioneered when he later directed the fetid, Keanu-starring cabbage A Walk in the Clouds; little has been heard from the director since.)

II. Where does Woman on Top fit into the magic-realism genre?

I'd classify Woman on Top as "magic realism" with less-interesting photography and an overgleeful happy ending — you know, like that recent Sarah Michelle Gellar flick Simply Irresistible, only cashing in on the just-faded Latin-music craze.

III. What's the story?

The tale begins in Brazil. A young wife with motion sickness who's a genius in the kitchen (Cruz) catches her husband (Murilo Benício) in bed with another woman; he's apparently frustrated because her motion sickness means that a lot of the relationship is on her terms, most notably in bed. Crushed, she flees to San Francisco to be with her transvestite pal (Harold Perrineau Jr.) and becomes a famous TV chef in about three days. The distraught husband tracks his wife to San Fran, finds men drooling over her televised visage, and worms his way into a supporting role in the show (!); wackiness ensues.

IV. Could you recount some of the corny/weak dialogue and more sit-commy exchanges for us, Alexandra?

With pleasure:


    Narrator: "She could melt the palates and hearts of men." And later: "This is a story of love, motion sickness, and the art of cooking. Ha ha!" [There is indeed a "Ha ha!" at the end there, which is sort of unfortunate.]


    Lesbian cabbie [who keeps picking up key characters throughout the film, as if San Francisco were a small Andalusian village]: "Man, lady, what planet are you from?"

    Penelope Cruz: "Brazil."


    Penelope Cruz [as she conducts her feelings-based cooking class]: "You must bring all your feelings and experiences to the art of creation." [Later, she has her students sniff peppers.]


    Friend/employee of the husband's: "When a man truly loves his wife, he never lets her catch him." [This is actually the movie's funniest line.]


    Husband: "I swear on my mother's grave that you are the only woman I ever loved."

    Penelope Cruz: "Your mother's still alive." [Badda-bing! Badda-boom!]


    Television producer to husband: "You little Latin mambo mouth!"


    Penelope Cruz: "I'm a chef."

    Unbelieving captain at chi-chi restaurant: "And I'm Jeanne Moreau!" [Does anyone reference Jeanne Moreau in their retorts these days? Did they EVER?]


V. What are some of Woman on Top's central hypocrisies, Alexandra?

  1. When Hollywood "suits" take over Cruz's cooking show, they tell her to be "less ethnic" — even as Fox Searchlight Pictures is exploiting her "ethnicity" to sell this Latin-lover bullcorn myth!
  2. "Magic" is quantified by the filmmakers in one of two ways: (a) They have end-of-Raiders-esque phantom vapors shoot out of Cruz's cooking and infect passersby, or (b) they cut to a shot of Penelope Cruz's breasts or derriere as men follow her — said men being as transfixed as if they were starring in a really bad jeans commercial. But when the Hollywood suits within the film tell the camera operators to focus on Cruz's cleavage, it's evil and exploitative! Now wait just a damned minute....
  3. During one of the emotional climaxes of the film, the husband tells Cruz as an act of redemption, "I want you to drive! I want you on top!" Now hold on: Much as I cherish a chick pipe dream being depicted on film, I have to point out that he was already letting her do these things as the film began, and it drove him into an adulterer's bed! Can this marriage really be saved without years of counseling and a good rabbi?

Also, I might add that these characters are ultimately pretty solipsistic: Cruz is charming as hell and exhibits star-wattage though a language barrier — no small feat — but she also comes off at times like a woman who's used to getting what she wants just because she's beautiful (save in the adultery and restaurant-management departments, but still). It sort of annoyed me. And before her husband leaves Brazil on his selfish quest to reclaim his wife, he accidentally curses the sea and kills his village's fishing economy. Um, isn't that a bit more important than your marital travails there, guy?

VI. How about the DVD extras?

Um, what extras? There are two trailers (American and international) laden with gratuitous boob shots of poor Penelope, plus three TV spots (one of which features those ever-mysterious "people leaving the theater") that includes praise-blurbs from such respectable bastions of film criticism as Teen People, SOMA, Jane and Out. There's also a "Fox Flix" menu containing trailers for the romances Ever After, French Kiss, One Fine Day, Picture Perfect, Prelude to a Kiss (and who remembered the hairstyles being so bad in that movie?), and the aforementioned fetid cabbage A Walk in the Clouds.

Thank you for your time.

— Alexandra DuPont

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