Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

A Touch of Cute 

Woman on Top, from Brazil, suffers from terrible writing, marginal acting, lapses of logic, and smugness. Help!

Wednesday, Sep 20 2000
Some may find reason to embrace the romantic comedy Woman on Top as the nonsensical but 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, 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 30-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 the hope 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 in-stant 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 Penelope Cruz (All About My Mother), who's turned out in a dazzling array of costumes.

Everything might come together, too, were it 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' presence, the effect falls flat. Said simply, 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. Suffice to say that Torres and Blasi won't be confused with Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez 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 as though he/she just crossed the bay from Oakland.

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 15th 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) which captures Brazilian verve and eccentricity in ways bumblers like Torres and Blasi can only dream about.

About The Author

Bill Gallo


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"