Take a widely appreciated food fetish, add healthy portions of romance, sprinkle in liberal amounts of meal-preparation scenes and season with quirky characters. That venerable recipe for an art-house hit is followed by Venezuelan filmmaker Fina Torres in "Woman on Top," a romantic comedy about life, love and the sensual glory of Brazilian cuisine.
Torres ("Orianna," "Celestial Clockwork") cooks up some impressive results, including the leading-lady emergence of Penelope Cruz, a wide-eyed Spanish beauty who shined in Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother and "Live Flesh." As Isabella -- a talented chef who leaves her cheating husband Toninho (Brazilian TV regular Murilo Benício), his popular seaside restaurant and their native Bahia for a new life in San Francisco -- Cruz is sexy, funny, knowing and engagingly vulnerable.
But Torres often strains to match the kookiness and kink that come so naturally to Almodóvar and his ilk. This calculated strategy is transparent in a flashback that sees Isabella and Toninho using an aromatic chili pepper as an instrument of foreplay. Later, she's followed through the streets of San Francisco by men who are hypnotized by her exotic appeal. It's supposed to be a funny, charming sequence, but the growing mob instead appears vaguely menacing.
Then there's the inevitable education of an uptight WASP by an earthy foreigner. Isabella's transvestite friend Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr.) teaches the art of loosening up to Cliff (Mark Feuerstein), an ambitious TV producer whose nerves turn to jelly when he pursues the object of his affections.
The film's dialogue (by newcomer Vera Blasi) seems lifted from previous food-and-sex movies like Alfonso Arau's "Like Water for Chocolate." "You must bring all your feelings and experiences to the act of creation," Isabella tells eager students at the San Francisco Culinary Institute.
At least Torres knows what to do with actors; the smoldering Benício shows effective chemistry with Cruz. In an inspired touch, a retinue of guitar-strumming, percussion-playing hometown pals follow Toninho through his moments of sad meditation and romantic pleading.
The rhythmic pacing of "Woman on Top" is bolstered by a lilting, bossa-nova soundtrack of new tunes by Brazilian singer-guitarist Paulinho Moska (Toninho's singing voice) and classics by Xavier Cugat, Baden Powell and Luiz Bonfa. The film moves at a pleasant meter, with musical sequences and special-effects magic occasionally diverting our attention from the overall lack of originality. Those distractions make Torres' familiar song an easier listen.
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