Judge Joel Pearce longs for creativity in a romantic comedy. That'll happen about the time there's a sequel to Cabin Boy.
Sometimes passion requires a little persuasion.
If Passionada had been the first romantic comedy I had ever seen, I would be thrilled about it. It has a delightful cast, a solid script, and beautiful cinematography. It deals with the problems of the characters in a meaningful and intelligent way. Unfortunately, I have seen a number of romantic comedies before, so I was able to predict each development in the plot before it happened. It's a shame, too, because this would have been a fantastic film if it had just felt a little more creative.
Facts of the Case
Stop me if this sounds familiar. A charming but flawed boy falls in love with an unattainable beauty and constructs a complicated web of lies in order to convince her to give him a chance. She finally softens, but the lies are always there, threatening to make an appearance and cause the relationship to come crashing down.
Celia Amonte (Sofía Milos, CSI: Miami) is the widow of a fisherman in New Bedford who has not recovered from her husband's death. Celia is under some pressure from her teenage daughter Vicky (Emmy Rossum, Mystic River) to start dating again, but she was with her husband for so long that she cannot imagine sharing her life with another man.
Meanwhile, Vicky meets Charles Beck (Jason Isaacs, Peter Pan), a skilled gambler with a long and troubled past, and tries unsuccessfully to convince him to teach her the art of card counting. At first Charles refuses, until he sees Celia singing in a local restaurant, falling quickly and desperately in love with her. He and Vicky strike up a deal and the game is on. Unfortunately, this time Charles is playing with his heart, and he quickly realizes that he will need to be more honest in order to make their relationship work.
So many aspects of Passionada work really well. The performances are all fantastic, especially from the two leads. It's incredibly rare for films to show a romance between people older than 29, but Jason Isaacs and Sofía Milos prove that this trend needs to change. Their relationship has depth because the two characters have enough of a past that their problems seem serious and real.
I have often seen Jason Isaacs play villains, which he does really well. He demonstrates his range here, though, as Charles is a guy who's difficult not to like. His clumsiness around Celia contrasts well with the smooth confidence he displays at the casino. Because of his previous lifestyle, Charles has a lot he needs to run away from, which means there is much he needs to change in order to make his relationship with Celia work. I would not even have imagined Isaacs in this type of role, but he pulls it off expertly.
I've not had much exposure to Sofía Milos in the past, but I was blown away by her work in Passionada. Celia is a much more complicated character than this script deserves. She is trapped between two generations in a family with strong ties to Portuguese tradition. She has a very close relationship with her husband's mother, who was also widowed and has never been involved with anyone since. Celia's daughter, Vicky, feels constricted by the community of New Bedford, and wants to escape the life of the fishing community. Celia needs to find a way to fit between these two generations, to keep the approval of her mother-in-law without losing touch with her daughter. The ways that she deals with this problem are realistic and fascinating. Sofía Milos was a wonderful choice for the role, because she is beautiful, but it is obvious that she isn't 21 anymore. As a result, Charles's reaction to meeting her is totally believable, but it doesn't seem impossible that she would have a daughter as old as Vicky.
When Charles and Celia begin their romance, they bring with them decades of pain and trouble. This comes through most clearly in the image of the sea. Celia has lived her whole life by the sea, and she cannot imagine living away from it. It has been a part of her family for generations, though it has been as much a source of pain as a source of income. It has taken her husband, and it takes a lot of coaxing for Charles to get her out in a boat. When she does finally go with him, though, it marks the moment in which they first connect in a meaningful way. This influence of the sea is a difficult one to explain in a short amount of time, but it is handled very well by both the script and the cast.
The film is full of wonderful and delightful scenes. There is a love scene that is incredibly intimate and erotic, without ever rising above a PG level. It works because the characters are fully present in the scene, and the results are impressive. There is also a delightful dance sequence, which seems so typical but rises above because it's a moment when all of the characters can forget the troubles of the past and just enjoy time with each other.
The cinematography does a wonderful job of capturing the community of New Bedford. It is full of rich reds and oranges, but it never feels gaudy or inappropriate. The video transfer captures those colors nicely, and there are no marks or digital flaws to detract from the enjoyment of the film. The sound is good too, with clear dialogue and a wide soundstage that is never overbearing.
While the disc seems quite bare at first, there are a number of significant extras. There are no promotional featurettes, but since they are almost always promotional fluff, I didn't miss them at all. Instead, there are a couple of solid commentaries. The first features director Dan Ireland and co-stars Jason Isaacs and Sofía Milos. It's a great track, because they do plenty of fun reminiscing, but Ireland often interrupts the banter to discuss technical aspects of the filmmaking that are fascinating and worthwhile. The writers' commentary, with brothers Jim and Stephen Jermanok, does not fare quite as well. They spend some time pointing out what is on the screen, but enough of their discussion deals with their intentions for the film that it is worth a watch.
Also included on the disc is some deleted footage. There is an alternate ending, which reveals the original direction of the film. It runs a full 15 minutes, and is significantly different from the final product. The real ending is far better, but this is an interesting example of how much a film can change in just a few minutes at the end. There is also a 35-second deleted scene of Vicky dancing at a club, which is basically pointless. Both of these include optional commentary from Dan Ireland.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, Passionada never gels as much as it should. I think it's purely the fault of the script. Individual scenes work very well, but the overall arc of the plot is so painfully typical that it undermines everything the filmmakers work so hard to create. Each time something fresh and great comes up, it snaps right back into the romantic comedy formula. Although Celia and Charles have a number of real problems that could drive them apart, the thing that brings about the final conflict of the film has nothing to do with those issues. The solution to this conflict is just as typical, creating an ending that's not as satisfying as it should be. All the pieces were in place for this to be a great romance, but the writers were content to trap these vibrant characters and settings into a plot as typical as the film's title.
In the writers' commentary, one of the Jermanok brothers talks about how proud he is at the ways Passionada is a distinct film. He then goes on to discuss the use of the Portuguese-American community, the area of New Bedford, and the music featured in the film. These are all good things, but so much of that distinction is lost when the story is so familiar.
Fans of romantic comedies should seek out Passionada and give it a try. People who just can't get enough of the genre may find it to be worth a purchase, and most people will be satisfied with the disc as a rental.
Everyone is free to go. The writing team, however, gets a stern warning not to bring something so routine in front of my court again.
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Scales of Justice
• Director and Cast Commentary
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