Some may find reason to embrace the romantic comedy Woman on Top as the nonsensical, sweet-tempered fantasy of two South American filmmakers who don't understand life in this country very well but grasp all the magical powers of Brazil. After all, Brazil ranks second only to fashionable Tibet on every armchair-traveling American's list of cool countries -- so everything about it is usually regarded with dreamy awe.
Be gentle, first instinct says. Indulge your old affection for fairy tales in accepting this movie's notion of a long-stemmed beauty from Bahia arriving in San Francisco and, inside of three or four days, becoming a major TV attraction who has most of the population (including all of the males) worshipping at her shrine. Next, accept that the shrine is a thirty-minute cooking show. Then find it matchlessly funny (and somehow relevant) that the heroine suffers from motion sickness. Also, get enthralled with her philandering husband, a fellow who breaks into song at no provocation whatsoever, especially after he pursues her to America in hopes of patching up their marriage. While you're at it, find yourself highly amused by the heroine's best friend from back home, a drag queen with a wardrobe that would shame Carmen Miranda.
Venezuelan-born director Fina Torres (Celestial Clockwork) and first-time Brazilian screenwriter Vera Blasi obviously hope to charm our socks off. But they are a bit too pleased with themselves, and they wind up with a terminal case of the cutes. A highly calculated case of the cutes, at that. A committee of hard-nosed studio accountants couldn't have dreamed up a collection of elements more cunningly designed for the mass marketplace. Consider: lilting Brazilian sambas, glamorous San Francisco, yet another plot trading on the sensuality of food. What more could you ask for? Well, how about a vision of instant TV fame and fortune in the era of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Some Afro-Brazilian hocus-pocus invoking a sea goddess called Yemanja. And a touch of cross-dressing, which has become a staple even in U.S. beer commercials. Not only that, the whole thing is in English, which eliminates the need for those annoying subtitles. And it features an exceptionally lovely leading lady, Spanish star Penélope Cruz (All About My Mother) who's turned out in a dazzling array of costumes.
Woman on Top
Everything might come together, too, if not for terrible writing, marginal acting, some bewildering lapses of logic and a fatal smugness. To wit: The movie consistently fails to actually deliver the charm it presumes to have, it's singularly unfunny and the heroine, whose name is Isabella, is not nearly as charismatic as Torres and Blasi would have us believe. A writer and director can have a beautiful woman wearing a red dress walk out of an apartment building and order several hundred apparently awestruck men to fall into step behind her. But unless some kind of magic has been firmly established, the scene is ludicrous. Moviemakers can propose a saloonful of beer-drinking sports junkies who are suddenly transfixed by a woman in a chef's toque cooking up coconut shrimp. But that runs the risk of reducing her to some kind of caricatured sex object. You can talk about Yemanja all you want, but if you don't feel the goddess's presence, the effect falls flat. Isabella doesn't earn her stripes even as a minor boob-tube celebrity, much less a force of nature.
As for "magic realism," the Latin-American literary method that, for better or worse, has crept into the movies, it's thoroughly abused here. Torres and Blasi won't be confused with Isabel Allende or Gabriel García-Márquez anytime soon when it comes to reconciling the mundane and the mystical. Or even straightening up tangled geography. (Kindly explain, for instance, why Isabella's transvestite friend [Harold Perrineau Jr.] is said to be from Brazil, but talks exactly like he/she just crossed the Bay from Oakland.)
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As for the business about the wayward husband (Murilo Benicio) following his wife to California, all but the most susceptible mock-romantics may find themselves wishing he hadn't made the trip. He's an annoying goof given to performing serenades under windows and bursting into TV studios, guitar strumming. About the fifteenth time he professes undying devotion and breaks into his Antonio Carlos Jobim act, you may feel like calling the music police. Better yet, try to catch Bruno Barreto's underrated Bossa Nova, an exaltation of love (and the search for love) that captures Brazilian verve and eccentricity in ways bumblers like Torres and Blasi can only dream about.