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Romance heats up ‘Passionada’

Comedy hindered only by a predictable plot
/ Source: contributor

In “Passionada,” sensual Portuguese and Brazilian music dances through the old town of New Bedford, Mass., echoing the bossa nova Boston of “Next Stop Wonderland” and perhaps finding a similar romantic resonance with viewers.

IT WAS DIRECTED by a romantic, Dan Ireland. He showed his ability brilliantly with “The Whole Wide World,” a 1996 career milestone for himself, Vincent D’Onofrio and Renee Zellweger. But that Texas love affair was about real people with a tragic finish, and it flopped (the new DVD may finally expand its overdue following).

Ireland has gone much more clearly commercial with “Passionada,” which is about the halting, heating, then rehalting affair of a shifty but soulful British gambler and a New England Portuguese fisherman’s widow. After seven years, still loyal to her dead husband, she is an almost Old World figure of pride whom the Brit seeks to seduce with charm and lies.

Sofia Milos of “CSI: Miami” is Celia, the widow who works in a garment factory, but sings impassioned fado ballads at a restaurant. She’s the middle-aged level of female generations rich in spark and spine: her mother (Lupe Ontiveros, an infallible vessel of warmth) and her teen daughter (Emmy Rossum, a trained soprano who also played Audrey Hepburn on TV, is all flirty hormones and catch-me smiles).

Jason Isaacs, notably villainous in “The Patriot” and the 2002 Harry Potter film (and Capt. Hook in the coming “Peter Pan”), is Charlie the card counter. Already unwelcome at the local casino, he relies on wealthy friends (Seymour Cassel, Theresa Russell) who are fond of his suave sponging. In romancing rituals, Isaacs seems like a more weathered Hugh Grant.

The novice writers, Jim and Steve Jermanok, have devoutly studied the Grant comedies and recent ethnic hits (“Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Real Women Have Curves” and the green machine, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”). They and Ireland load scenes with food and music, crank up a Brazilian street dance and play lightly, but not vapidly, with the ageless traditions of the courting man, the conquering woman.

Some of it is pedestrian, much is predictable; you might see suture lines where the third act was altered late in filming. But the cast is very appealing (we need more of Russell, still an “oomph” actress of keen intelligence). The songs can throb your spirit, New Bedford is an old burg photographed gracefully, and Ireland has not lost his care for the emotional interior of scenes, even when the writing is fairly mechanical.

OK, the ending grabs your lapels. But by then you want to eat lobster and listen to fado, maybe while Cassel serves you one of the martinis he loves to mix. Savor the slurp.

David Elliott is the movie critic of The San Diego Union-Tribune. © 2003 by the Copley News Service.