Angie Cepeda carries self-conscious romantic comedy "Love for Rent" with intelligent grace. Shane Edelman's sophomore outing, a semi-earnest treatment of immigration woes and surrogate parenting, excels at off-moments. Audience Award-winner at N.Y. Latino fest seems unlikely to emigrate far beyond its Hispanic base after a skedded Florida run.

Columbian-born star Angie Cepeda carries self-conscious romantic comedy “Love for Rent” with intelligent grace. Shane Edelman’s sophomore outing, a semi-earnest treatment of immigration woes and surrogate parenting, excels at off-moments, as when Cepeda hangs with the neighbor’s tot or argues with her fiery cousin. Unfortunately, the romance between Cepeda and Ken Marino as her significant other is saddled with forced whimsy. Audience Award-winner at N.Y. Latino fest seems unlikely to emigrate far beyond its Hispanic base after a skedded Florida run.

Sunny, Florida-shot pic opens on a bad day for Sofia (Cepeda), a serious law student, who discovers that her husband-in-name-only (Brad Rowe) whom she married to get her green card, has stolen everything she owns. To compound her problems, her car is totaled by her cousin’s hubby, George (Richard Speight).

But from disaster comes salvation when the well-to-do couple (Nora Dunn and Jim Piddock), whose car George has crashed in to, offers Sophia $50,000 to bear their child.

Sofia starts dating impish young doctor Neil (Marino), whom she meets in the hospital emergency room, not telling him about her surrogate pregnancy and unconsummated marriage. Along with an impossibly cute tyke named Max (Max Burkholder), fostered next door, the three form a de facto family, passing themselves off as such to Neil’s memory-impaired mother. But secrets, particularly third trimester ones, have a way of being outed.

Tone varies widely. Film’s more understated comic touches, dependent on the rhythms of the actors, tend to develop organically: Max rambles adorably on in perfectly inflected, run-on childspeak; a pregnant Sofia, studying in the library, unconsciously snitches chips from a silently outraged stranger’s bag. Similarly, the longstanding relationships among brainy Sofia, her impetuous singer-dancer cousin and clueless cousin-in-law George spark with believable familial exasperation.

But exchanges between Sofia and Neil are not only arch and precious, but also require Marino to prance and jump in boyish enthusiasm at his own cuteness.

Unfortunately, the need to make the romance unique and quirky lumps “Love for Rent” together with every other stilted, overwritten attempt at reinventing romantic comedy — in this case, with a dash of immigration and a liberal sprinkling of surrogate motherhood.

But, oddly, when the laughs veer toward moral uplift, as they so often do in this kind of sitcom-influenced fare, the shift is less gruesome than it might have been. The rich couple’s transformation from caricatures to three-dimensional characters, which allows Sofia to make a crucial decision on the child she is carrying, is accomplished relatively painlessly. Ex-SNL alumna Dunn as the chain-smoking, bitchy egg-donor, makes her last-minute transition to caring mother seem almost believable, while Piddock’s affable, slightly potty British twit softens a potentially exploitative role.

Tech credits are polished.

Love for Rent

Production

A MiamiLa Entertainment production. Produced by Terence Michael. Co-producer, Dave Schulz. Executive Producer, Alvaro Albarracin. Directed by Shane Edelman. Screenplay, Andrew Miles; story Brian D. Young.

Crew

Camera (color), David Morrison; editor, Gabriel Wrye; music, Jeff Cardoni; music supervisor, Danny Bracht; production designer, David Huang; costume designer, Heather Goodwin; sound (Dolby), Ben Patrick, Sean Skinner; supervising sound editor, Christopher Briles; casting Mededith Morton, Abra Edelman. Reviewed at N.Y. Latino Film Festival, July 29, 2005. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Angie Cepeda, Ken Marino, Jim Piddock, Nora Dunn, Martita Roca, Max Wolf Burkholder, Brad Rowe.

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