(director: Dan Ireland; screenwriters: Jim and Steve Jermanok; cinematographer: Claudio Rocha; editor: Luis Colina; music: Justin Caine Burnett; cast: Jason Isaacs (Charles Beck), Sofia Milos (Celia Amonte), Emmy Rossum (Vicky Amonte), Theresa Russell (Lois Vargas), Seymour Cassel (Daniel Vargas), Lupe Ontiveros (Angelica Amonte), Chris Tardio (Gianni Martinez); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: David Bakalar; IDP Films; 2002)
“Top heavy on charm and sentimentality.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A middle-brow feel-good sitcom melodrama that is artificially flavored with an American Portuguese setting, as it’s much like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” except for serving a fish paella instead of lamb. In fact I dozed off for a few quick winks as the story dragged in the middle-part and when my eyes refocused on the screen I wasn’t sure which film I was seeing. Director Dan Ireland’s (“The Whole Wide World“) film is top heavy on charm and sentimentality and unfortunately shuns dramatic tension, as the formulaic plot plods on to tie everything neatly up in its inevitable happy ending. It has little to say about the Portuguese in America, single mothers, unsupervised teens, grieving over a loved one or romance, subjects the film covers only superficially. Everything is eye candy, and there was nothing to take away except for a peek at the beautiful scenic location shots and the heartfelt sounds of some Portuguese soul music–called fado. The script is handled by Schenectady natives, the brothers Jim and Stephen Jermanok, who lazily follow an all too familiar path. The actors are pleasant and satisfactorily play along with the thin material, but they give too many “win one for the Gipper” speeches to each other and try too hard to be so appealing.

Passionada is set in the Portuguese fishing community of New Bedford, Ma.. It is a story of second chances and overcoming a personal tragedy. The earthy Celia Amonte (Sofia Milos) works days as a sewer in a factory and nights sings fado songs in the tacky Harbor Hill Restaurant (popular current fado singer Misia’s soundtrack is used). Celia is in her mid-thirties and is the attractive widow of a Portuguese fisherman, whose boat never returned from sea seven years ago. Her seemingly always smiling 17-year-old daughter Vicky (Emmy Rossum, a mature looking 14-year-old) wants mom to come out of her mourning period and meet an eligible man. She tries to arrange dates for mom on the Internet, but the one time she fixes her up is with a much younger man who is a barbarian. Also living with mom and daughter is Celia’s lovable but meddling mother-in-law Angelica (Lupe Ontiveros).

Vicky treks out at night on her motorcycle, and in the ladies’ room of the local casino run by the Indian tribes she changes into a dress to fool the management into thinking she’s an adult. At the blackjack table she meets British cardsharp Charles Beck (Jason Isaacs) and realizes he’s a card counter. She implores him to teach her the tricks of the craft, but he refuses. Charlie is down on his luck, as he’s been banned by most casinos in the world and worries about being recognized in this small venue. He is staying in a motel while visiting his wealthy retired gambler friends, Daniel and his much younger wife Lois Vargas (Seymour Cassel & Theresa Russell). Their role was marginal and was performed in a different rhythm than the other thespians, leaving no impact.

When Charlie accompanies Lois and Danny to the local restaurant, he falls in love with Celia instantly upon hearing her sing in such a sultry passionate voice but is blown off when he approaches her. Not one to easily be rebuffed, the weasel-like wannabe Cary Grant shows up on the doorsteps of Celia’s house and is surprised to see Vicky. Finally, when Charlie realizes he can’t meet the widow on his own he makes a deal at Vicky’s urgings, where he teaches her to count cards and she helps him meet her mom. The persistent Charlie never takes no for an answer and makes Celia come to life with joy and laughter as he poses as a millionaire with a yacht and a fish processing plant. His lies lead him to her bed, but when Celia learns the truth she must decide if the wrong man may indeed be the right one.

This soap opera tale succeeded in appearing to be like a foreign film, but it still left me smelling something fishy about all those dead fish lined up pointing to how changed a man Charlie has become now that he’s in love.