(2003) ** Pg-13
108 min. distributer. Director: Dan Ireland. Cast: Jason Isaacs, Sofia Milos, Emmy Rossum, Theresa Russell, Lupe Ontiveros.

It's tempting to give Passionada a pass for what it gets right, but this otherwise unassuming film--which aspires to old-fashioned Hollywood charm--has an albatross around the neck of its typically contrived romantic-comedy plot. As in so many romantic comedies of late, half of the couple is lying through the teeth in order to win an object of affection. This old chestnut is so overplayed that it's a wonder audiences don't--as if at a horror movie--yell at the screen, "Don't go there!" Passionada does go there, in search of easy conflict and trite resolution.

As scripted by Jim and Steve Jermanok and directed by Dan Ireland (The Whole Wide World), Passionada resembles nothing so much as Moonstruck, with Portuguese-American New Bedford, Massachusetts in place of New York's Little Italy, a reluctant widow (CSI: Miami's Sofia Milos in place of Cher), an offbeat suitor (Jason Isaacs in place of Nicholas Cage), and an overbearing ma (Lupe Ontiveros in place of Olympia Dukakis). Same recipe, different seasoning, with the added ingredient of a disobedient daughter in need of grounding. The luminous Emmy Rossum plays the teenage Vicky with burgeoning star quality.

Milos's Celia is a seamstress by day and a Fado singer by night, which allows Isaacs's Charlie to fall for her after watching one song of her nightclub act. His weepy reaction to her singing and her beauty is suspiciously expedient, especially when the sparkless direction insufficiently conveys the magic of the moment. As for the albatross, busted gambling cheat Charlie woos Celia under the guise of a rich fishing-industry magnate, while surreptitiously teaching Vicky card-counting for the privilege. Any human being could see that this sort of chicanery would be counter-productive--if not instantly, at least after a first date or, gulp, a bedroom encounter. But Charlie is a slave to the three-act script structure, so he sticks to his lying guns.

Ireland enlivens the rote concepts with a sturdy cast and touches of flair. Milos and Isaacs make an unlikely but sexy couple, and the script musters some likeably tart one-liners. The film benefits from colorful location shooting in an underepresented setting and sterling support from Seymour Cassel and Theresa Russell as Isaac's happily married, ritzy though disreputable friends. Ontiveros meddles on cue, every fifteen minutes; she remains amusing, but the novelty of her brand of mother shtick is over. Passionada is similarly likeable, and similarly fishy. If you're in the mood, set sail at your own risk; you've had the weather advisory.

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