To call Woman on Top a romantic comedy would be doing a disservice to the genre. It is neither romantic or funny, and I have no idea what the filmmakers were thinking when filming it. Its failures are on the script level, and also in the actors hired for the underwritten roles. If the film was romantic or funny it might be worth watching, but being neither ensures that you had might as well forget that it exists.
Woman on Top stars Penélope Cruz as Isabella, a woman who has been plagued by motion sickness for her entire life. She can’t do anything involving motion unless she is in control. She can drive a car but cannot ride in the passenger seat. She can dance, but she must lead. This also pertains to the bedroom, where she must always be on top. In the first few minutes of the film, we learn that she fell in love with a restaurant owner, Toninho (Murilo Benício), in their native Brazil. She’s a wonderful cook, but he took all the credit and slept around, claiming that he needed to take control sometimes and that doing so is totally okay.
Understandably, Isabella flees to San Fransisco to live with her transsexual friend, Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr.). She winds up starring in a cooking show, after a producer, Cliff (Mark Feurstein), discovers her at a cooking lesson. Meanwhile, Toninho has come to San Francisco to win Isabella back, while Cliff is also trying to win her heart. She’s apparently so magical, and her cooking smells and tastes so good, that every guy in the movie wishes to be her lover.
You can already see how this is going to play out, right? Isabella is clearly not ready to move on from Toninho, and yet his actions make it obvious that he’s a jerk. Cliff comes along and gives her a cooking show, and seems like a genuinely good person, so he’s the obvious choice in this love triangle, even if he’ll have to wait a while until Isabella has fully moved on. This is what logic would dictate, and I don’t blame you for attempting to use logic while trying to figure out how the story will go.
You would be wrong, however, to use logic in a bad romantic comedy. There is your problem. You’re also assuming the screenplay for Woman on Top is competent and follows some sort of semblance of intelligence, which it most certainly doesn’t. Even though Toninho is seen almost right off the bat cheating on Isabella, the film presents this as completely okay. His viewpoint is that he needs some control in his life, and that if he couldn’t get that with Isabella, searching elsewhere is fine, as long as he still loves Isabella.
Because True Love Will Prevail, I guess. Even though Toninho (1) took advantage of Isabella’s exceptional talent by using her as the restaurant’s cook and not giving her any of the credit and (2) cheated on her with the weakest type of justification imaginable. In order for the love triangle to work, he has to have a fighting chance. As a result, he’s portrayed more favorably than he should, while Cliff, seemingly the nicest guy, winds up completely changing character later on in an attempt to create false tension.
This might be fine if the film was funny. It’s not. There’s nothing humorous about the screenplay or the situations. It doesn’t even try to generate many laughs. Instead, it goes more for the romantic route which doesn’t work because one of the two males is a jerk and the other randomly changes characters to look more like a jerk. And then there’s Isabella, who has little personality except that she likes cooking a whole bunch. We haven’t even got into the fact that there is no chemistry among any of these three people.
Even though the personalities are wishy-washy, we might be able to get over that if the chemistry was so intense and the screen presences were so commanding. If we’re so enthralled in watching these actors lust after each other, logic kind of can get thrown out the window. “They’re driven by love,” we’d say, and we wouldn’t question it. But when the actors look at each with a lack of passion, then that potential isn’t there.
That isn’t to say that, individually, the actors aren’t good. Penélope Cruz only needed to look good and be charming in the lead role, and she most certainly pulls off both of these. But she shows an almost disdain for her romantic co-stars. Harold Perrineau Jr. pulls off a thankless job in a pointless role as the transsexual, Monica. Both potential lovers for Cruz, Murilo Benício and Mark Feurstein, are fine when alone but have no idea how to act when they’re with each other or with Cruz.
There really isn’t any good in Woman on Top. It could be forgiven in so many places if it had just gotten one thing correctly, but it fails on each successive level. It wasn’t romantic, but could have been saved if it was funny. It’s not funny, but if the actors had strong enough chemistry it wouldn’t matter. It doesn’t make sense but if the love was believable we wouldn’t care. No one area makes up for all the other flaws, and I just couldn’t find a single thing to like about Woman on Top. Skip this one. It’s not worth it.