By Owen Gleiberman
Updated October 06, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

If someone ever made a movie scored to a bossa nova soundtrack that did justice to the music’s deceptively airy fusion of happiness and romantic melancholy, it could be the most haunting of love stories. Brad Anderson’s 1998 comedy of fate, Next Stop Wonderland, got some of that wistful bossa nova heartache, but Woman on Top, a scattershot food-and-sex trifle rooted in the sound and spirit of Brazil, has all the mood-enhancing flavor of a tropical cocktail made with watered-down rum and fake fruit juice.

The star, Penélope Cruz, has one of those elegant and dazzling Latin-underbite smiles, but here, in her first English-language lead role, it’s topped by a beauty-queen-caught-in-the-headlights gawk that doesn’t do her any favors. She plays Isabella, a professional cook who discovers her husband’s infidelity and ends up hightailing it from Bahia to San Francisco, where she lands her own hit television cooking show. A mush-brained Like Water for Chocolate set within a stilted ”satirical” version of backstage TV politics, Woman on Top is almost laughably literal-minded about the romance of cooking. The peppery-hot vapors from Isabella’s dishes drift out the window, and every man who inhales them turns into a hypnotized fool for love. It’s all a little one-sided, too: Gorgeous as she is, Isabella is so skinny that we can’t even believe she dips into her own meals. D+