Woman on Top a vapid cream puff that quickly turns sour

Obviously inspired by the Like Water for Chocolate school of culinary magical realism, Woman on Top is first-and-foremost derivative. But that's not the least of its crimes. This story of sensual Brazilian chef Isabella (Penelope Cruz) — who cooks by intuition, touch and feel and can send herself into throes of Proustian ecstasy simply by sniffing a chili pepper — has a more damning fault. Like a plate of Egg Fu Yung doctored up with enough MSG to generate a parasitic twin, Woman on Top is a local dish spiced up and altered to please a global palate. This vaporous, peppy romantic comedy is a crossover vehicle engineered to project its star, Penelope Cruz, from an art house phenomenon in Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother and Live Flesh into an American movie star. To that end, Venezuelan director Fina Torres has surrounded Cruz with a showy, ceremonial cake to jump out of. Woman on Top's plot is all sugary confection on the outside and hollow on the inside, save the pretty, charming girl at the center. Audiences could save themselves some unnecessary suffering by just embracing Cruz as their newest "heartthrob" and skipping this unappetizing, frivolous romantic comedy.

The film begins in Brazil, where Isabella and Toninho (Murilo Benicio) are passionately in love newlyweds and co-owners of a restaurant, to which Isabella lends her near-divine culinary skills. Only problem is, while Isabella slaves away in the kitchen, her husband is flirting with the lady customers in the dining room. Catching him in bed one night with another (a tired subplot has Toninho's manhood threatened by Isabella's insistence on being "on top" during lovemaking to dispel her lifelong problem with motion sickness), Isabella scoots off to San Francisco where she shacks up with her childhood friend Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr.), a transvestite whose presence is clearly meant to spike Torres' lightweight punch with a little eau d'Almodovar.

Because Woman is established from the beginning as a fantasy, the improbabilities stack up far more quickly than in your run-of-the-mill, saccharine romantic comedy. Isabella is soon the toast of San Francisco as the host of a cooking show, and she finds herself hounded by Toninho, who travels to America to woo her back. But this is not just an ordinary tale of estranged lovers. These are Brazilians, the film cautions, and magic has a say in both Toninho and Isabella's union and their estrangement. Most significantly, Isabella has placed a spell on herself to become immune to Toninho's charms — a twist that will force Torres to truck out every manner of special effect: underwater fantasy interludes, electrical storms and special recipes that emit a Disney cartoon vapor to signal their intoxicating properties, to up the already delirious ante of her chaotic jumble of a film.

As her persistent love interest Toninho, Benicio is cute but a little like a second-string Antonio Banderas. In every frame he shares, he seems unable to stand up to the blinding light of La Cruz. The only character who gives Cruz a run for her money is the prototypical salty girl sidekick Monica, who gets the best lines, the flashiest wardrobe and provides a necessary foil to the insipid male tug-of-war for Isabella's hand.

Woman has some of the strained, gut-busting, red-faced wackiness of many Latin American popular films, themselves so often derivative of the strained wackiness of American comedies. At several points, Woman is shucking and jiving so damn hard in its effort to entertain, the whole film seems capable of imploding from sheer misdirected energy. Cruz is the calm, lovely eye of this tropical storm, maintaining a regal prettiness and charm even as her estranged husband tries again and again and again ... (enough already!) to win her back.

Women suffers most disastrously from a case of plotus interruptus. It can't get it up in the forward momentum department and so it returns to the same exhausting premise: Will Toninho and Isabella get back together?

This overripe plotline simply will not die, no matter how hard Torres flogs it, and Toninho's presence eventually becomes obtrusive and annoying, dragging the film down into an unresolvable whirlpool. You wish the two would just break up once and for all; that Isabella would join an ashram or turn gay or even — god forbid — fall in love with the Wonderbread TV producer Cliff (Mark Feuerstein), a guy so bland he makes Tom Cruise look like spicy dark meat. Anything to make this insufferable indecision end.