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Saturday, Dec. 30, 2000


Feminism in the kitchen

This is what my friend Tad says about today's women: "Don't you hate it when they can cook, too?" Tad (32, single) feels threatened by the "modern girl" who can out-work and out-sport him any day of the week, aside from being pretty, sexy and "altogether too got-it-together, you know what I mean?" The crowning let-down, claims Tad, is when he invites one of these superladies over for dinner and she says: "Ooh, this is yummy. But I can make a better sauce, let me show you how."

Tad, and guys like him, should stay away from "Woman on Top" because the title isn't kidding. This movie is designed like a Weeble Wobble -- whichever way you place it, shake it or give it a twirl, women are destined to come out on top of a pile of prostrated males.

But listen, Tad and friends, if you miss this, it's your own terrible loss. Because when the woman in question is Penelope Cruz, you will know with deep understanding that "top" is the only place on earth for her. Behold her beauty, her kindness, her hypnotic, exotic English. ("He iss the man I loff, okkay?") One just wants to watch her forever, dominating the frames and hogging screen time while one sits and gapes like a Pavlovian dog on Prozac.

Oh, and did I mention that she can cook, too? The whole point of "Woman on Top" is that the woman (Cruz) is one hell of a chef. In her hands, peppers and oils transform into love potions. Fruits take on seductive colors and the act of chopping and stirring becomes positively provocative. Imagine Penelope Cruz in your kitchen, tresses cascading down her back, whipping up a souffle dressed in a . . . I don't remember exactly, but it was something red, skimpy and very short. Tad is likely to have a massive coronary.

Directed by Fina Torres, "Woman on Top" is a production you wish could have been shown to Simone de Beauvoir. Then she would never have had to write "The Second Sex" and feminism would have taken a totally different track. There's nothing in here about competing with men, or other women. There are no hangups, no despair.

Torres' take is that women are wonderful, and she loves them. Many of her scenes will remind you of Pedro Almodovar ("All About My Mother"), and she even casts Harold Perrineau Jr. in the role of a transvestite. Hot and sweet and just a little bit wicked, "Woman on Top" leaves you feeling like singing that ditsy country song "Honey, You Make Me Glad I'm a Woman."

The story opens in Brazil, where beautiful chef Isabella (Cruz), lives with handsome hubby Tonino (Murilo Benicio). Isabella is blessed with everything any woman can want but she has a problem -- she is prone to severe motion sickness. Even elevators and love-making make her ill. The only way to avoid this is for her to control the motions. This means that she must be in the driver's seat, at all times. This begins to irk Tonino, who secretly feels he "would like to be on top sometimes."

One night, Isabella catches him with the brunette next door. Deeply hurt, she gets on a plane, almost dies from airsickness, lands in San Francisco and winds up at the apartment of best friend and transvestite Monica (Perrineau Jr.).

Determined to forget Tonino, Isabella finds a teaching job in a cooking school. Students are introduced to the many different kinds of peppers used in Brazilian cooking and their aphrodisiac effects. Isabella calls it "Passion Food." She meets TV producer Cliff (Mark Feuerstein), who persuades her to go on the air and show his city what eating is all about. Isabella becomes a big star and there's talk of her going national. But Tonino arrives in town with a band of serenaders, hoping to win her back. He sings under her window and turns up the volume of his Latin charm.

"Woman on Top" probably owes much to Jamie Oliver, the British cooking sensation whose TV show proved that food (and English food at that) can be sexy and chefs even more so. In Japan, there is still the sad notion that people in the kitchen must be harmless nonentities or they will alienate the viewers who, for the most part, are harmless nonentities. How absolutely wrong. You only have to see this film to discover how wrong. To borrow the words of Isabella, remember that such a picture "tastes best when you share it with someone you loff."

"Woman on Top" is playing at the Hibiya Scala-za Theater and others.

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