Waiter, there’s no spice in my romance

Woman On Top

The poster for Woman On Top looks rather Pedro Almodovar-like: lascivious, sexy and playful. And the film’s idea is an imaginative and original take on the Like Water For Chocolate/Eat Drink Man Woman food-sex nexus.

Brazilian Isabella Oliviera (Penelope Cruz) is born with a severe case of motion sickness. As a child, there’s little she can do outdoors so instead she cultivates her culinary skills, becoming a chef with a passion for her fiery hometown cuisine. But love interrupts her plans to travel the world: Isabella meets and marries Toninho (Murilo Benicio).

All is rosy for a while, with Isabella cooking in the little seafood restaurant that Toninho owns and fronts a band in . She can control her motion sickness, we’re told, as long as she controls the motion. So Isabella must be the one driving, she’s got to lead on the dance floor, she can’t catch lifts, and when it comes to sex, she’s got to be on top. Eventually a life with such restrictions gets too much for Toninho.

"I’m a man, I’ve got to be on top sometimes!" he implores when Isabella catches him in bed with a neighbor. Isabella flees the pastel-colored shores of Brazil for San Francisco and the comfort of her drag queen friend Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr), and it’s here that the movie really begins. Can Isabella stop loving the husband of her dreams and make her way in the world alone?

Only with the help of Yemanja, the ocean goddess to whom she delivers an offering in order to put a stop to her love for Toninho; and the help of her incredible culinary skills. When TV producer Cliff (Mark Feuerstein) catches the scent of her cooking – and is also dazzled by her looks – he manages to get her a prime-time slot hosting her own TV show, Passion Food Live. It drives male audiences crazy.

And therein lies the major problem with this potentially great film. It’s supposed to be about passion and sensuality, but Penelope Cruz is a man’s woman with all the joie de vivre of a 1990s heroin chic model. Where’s her oomph? Monica herself tries to instil a bit of the brazenness of Brazil into Isabella’s suitor-producer by throwing his thousand-dollar watch out the window. "Isabella is Brazil, Brazil is Isabella," she instructs. Actually Isabella’s just a pretty girl who has all the charisma of chorizo.

But Toninho chases after her with his guitar-playing friends, determined to win her back, and even submit to being on the bottom if that’s what it’s going to take. Unfortunately director Fina Torres (Celestial Clockwork) not only fails to ignite any flames between these two, she expects the audience to want them to get back together. Almodovar Torres ain’t. Isabella might not have an awful lot of personality, but any sensible female in the audience will be wishing that she had enough self-respect to just get on with her life.

Contributing to the lack of energy is some very stilted acting. Monica delivers some good lines with enough panache to almost steal the show; she ruins her chances, however, by also delivering some real clangers.

Woman On Top promises far more than it delivers, hinting heavily at spiciness but delivering lukewarm porridge. Coming on the tail-end of the Bangkok Latino craze, Thai audiences will probably enjoy the soundtrack and be kept entertained by this film, but they deserve to have been served a much heartier dish.

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