- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2000

Penelope Cruz has been a photogenically smoldering adornment to Spanish movies during the past decade, linking a couple of Academy Award winners as best foreign-language film: Fernando Trueba's "Belle Epoque" and Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother."

Nothing but an irresistible showcase may stand between her and Hollywood stardom, but contriving that showcase may demand more finesse than one can detect in the sex farce "Woman on Top."

Obviously intended to confirm Miss Cruz as a cinematic goddess, the film spoils its glorifying impulses by insisting on a plot whose trivial-minded and diffuse defects would tax the charm of an established glamour puss.

In repose, Miss Cruz looks fabulous; her mouth and nose suggest a second coming of Sophia Loren. Out of repose, the spell tends to evaporate because Miss Cruz's face is not as generously proportioned on the whole, and she lacks the comic confidence and authority needed to carry a dubious vehicle over poorly paved roads.

Disappointed in her spouse, Toninho (Murilo Benicio), caught in bed with another woman, Miss Cruz's character, Isabella, takes her wounded feelings and cooking skills from Bahia to San Francisco, where she knows a prominent chef and can room with a bosom buddy, an irrepressible transvestite who calls himself Monica.

A perhaps unforeseen snag in the system of merriment is that once Isabella moves in with Monica, it becomes relatively easy for Harold Perrineau Jr. to steal the movie while sustaining a personality-plus drag caricature.

Miss Cruz remains the preeminent beauty, of course, so much so that playful sequences are contrived around the notion of hordes of men following the mere scent of Isabella around the capital of the gay north.

However, Mr. Perrineau has no trouble acting rings around her.

A male writer and director might have emphasized the odyssey of Toninho, who is sincerely contrite and follows Isabella to make amends.

The harebrained aspects of Toninho's quest can't disguise a heartfelt desire for reconciliation, as plausible a motive here as it was for Nicolas Cage in "Honeymoon in Vegas" or George Segal in "Blume in Love."

The filmmakers flirt with the notion that Isabella might blossom into a man-eating hedonist in her new setting, but it's strictly a tease, as lame as the facetious introductions that suggest Isabella may be too much woman for any man.

Supposedly, she is prone to motion sickness. The condition eases when she can be in charge: always driving the car, leading in a dance or situated topside during intercourse. Chuckle, chuckle.

One out of four stars

TITLE: "Woman on Top"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity; systematic prurience and sexual vulgarity; fleeting graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Fina Torres

RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes

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