Woman on Top

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With more than a nod to Like Water For Chocolate, Woman on Top focuses on a woman who uses cooking as a means to express her desires. But Woman has none of the solemnity of Chocolate. Instead it’s a breezy contemporary fairy tale about realigning the balance of power between men and women.

In the lovely seaside town of Bahia, Brazil, live Isabella (Penelope Cruz) and Toninho (Murilo Benicio), who own a small, but successful restaurant. She’s a marvelously gifted cook and he serenades the patrons with soothing ballads. But there’s trouble in paradise. Isabella suffers from severe motion sickness, which is only controlled if she drives the vehicle. Now, as much as men hate it when women take the wheel, they are even more sensitive when it comes to sex, and Isabella can only keep from being nauseous when she’s on top.

After catching Toninho being serviced elsewhere, Isabella flees to the funky San Francisco apartment of her cross-dressing childhood friend, Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr). Practically overnight, Isabella becomes the star of a television cooking show (which blends her innate sensuality with spicy recipes), and her errant husband arrives anxious to croon his way back into her life.

Does all this sound supremely silly? Well, it is. Yet screenwriter Vera Blasi and director Fina Torres make this frothy concoction pretty tasty. Torres has an eye for color and composition, filling the screen with impossibly beautiful imagery. She also has a light touch with the material, so that even the mystical intervention of Yemanja, Brazilian goddess of the sea, easily fits in to this sunny fable.

But ultimately, it’s Penelope Cruz who saves the day. Beautiful and demanding yet also warm and personable, she makes Isabella feel down to earth even in the most outlandish situations.

For Isabella, being on top means having control over her life and being recognized for her individual achievements. Those are valuable aspirations, even in such an insubstantial movie.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

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