In order to pull off their wafer-thin but irresistibly diverting slice of magic realism, the makers of Woman On Top were faced with an unusual casting challenge. Attractive young stars and starlets are easy to come by, but had they merely cast beautiful actors in the lead roles, the results could have been disastrous. What they needed were two people so absurdly, inhumanly beautiful that nature itself is thrown out of balance when they're apart: Fishes die, the elements rumble and crash, and only a high priestess can exorcise their passion for each other. Knowing there's no better place to look than the latest Pedro Almodóvar movie, director Fina Torres (Celestial Clockwork) was wise enough to center her florid tribute to Brazilia on Penélope Cruz, the exotic ingenue from Almodóvar's All About My Mother and Live Flesh. As a popular chef who invests her dishes with passion and sensuality, a la Like Water For Chocolate, Cruz's beauty is used as both a lure and a running gag, powerful enough to make tulips bloom as she passes and turn men into rapt zombies. After she catches her dashing counterpart, Murilo Benício, with another woman, Cruz flees their popular restaurant on the Brazilian coast for a new life in San Francisco. Rooming with the ultimate Bay Area cliché, a flamboyant transvestite played by Harold Perrineau Jr., she finds a new suitor in a TV producer (Mark Feuerstein) who makes her the star of her own hit cooking show. Featuring luscious widescreen photography by Thierry Arbogast (The Lovers On The Bridge) and a steady diet of woozy samba music, Woman On Top is a visual and aural vacation, sustaining the lilting ambience Bossa Nova never quite achieved. For all the trite ideas in Vera Blasi's script—and there are plenty, especially a device in which Cruz gets motion sickness unless she's in control of what's moving (block that metaphor!)—the light, unaffected tone makes them surprisingly easy to stomach. And Cruz, bright and assured in her first starring role, makes certain that the power of a ripe red pepper will never again be underestimated.