We've seen this story before ... in many different versions. Jane Austen's classic novel, "Sense and Sensibility," has been adapted in the past and no matter what twist you want to put on it, it's always the same story. Two sisters from a wealthy family are forced to move in with poorer relatives when their father dies and leaves them with nothing. What follows is a coming of age story, which centers on the two sisters as they experience love, life and heartbreak together as a family. It's a universal story and it makes sense that it has been adapted so many times and in so many different ways. Since the novel was published in 1811, there have been two BBC television series based on the book, an Oscar winning film starring Emma Thompson and even a parody novel entitled, "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters." Now, another film will soon hit theaters based on the classic novel, this time a Latin version of the story, entitled "From Prada To Nada."
On the surface, "From Prada To Nada," is a silly little comedy, which tries too hard to reach beyond its grasp and become a commentary on race in today's society, unfortunately that is where the film falls short. Where it does succeed is with its cast, which is much better than the material they have been given. While the characters are slightly two-dimensional and contrived, the acting is very good and elevates much of the poor writing. But again, the characters are very poorly written and the actors made the most of it, so they can hardly be blamed for the outcome. Many of the characters, such as Mary, the snotty sister who can't adjust to her new surroundings, are so stereotypical and predictable. Another example is Bruno, the tough neighbor next door with a heart of gold that has eyes for Mary. But Wilmer Valderrama ("That '70s Show), who plays Bruno, makes the character believable and relatable for the audience as best he can, as does Alexa Vega ("Spy Kids") who plays Mary.
The movie begins by introducing us to Nora (Camilla Belle) and Mary (Vega), two sisters who grew up in a wealthy family in Beverly Hills. Nora is in College and is studying to be a lawyer. Career comes first for Nora and she has never had anytime for a boyfriend. Mary is just the opposite. Her favorite thing to do is shop and she has had plenty of boyfriends. Mary has no interest in school and just wants to find a rich man to marry. When their father dies, they are shocked to find out that he was secretly broke and that they are now poor. They eventually are forced to move to East L.A. with their Aunt Aurelia (Adriana Barraza). The move is a shock for the girls, especially Mary, who are not used to the poor community or their Latin heritage, which their father sheltered them from. Nora decides to quit law school and get a job at a law firm as an assistant, while Mary goes back to school to get her degree. Soon Mary meets Bruno (Valderamma), a tough neighbor from across the street who has a crush on Mary and tries to help her adjust. Meanwhile, Nora begins to have feeling for her boss, Edward (Nicholas D'Agosto), who also happens to be the brother of her half-brother's wife. Eventually, the girls find true love and overcome their fears to find the true meaning of family.
Another huge issue I have with the film is its main premise: that moving from Beverly Hills to East Los Angeles is like moving to a third world country. I'm sorry but I just can't swallow that. I live in downtown L.A. and recognize many of the locations where they shot the film. While my neighborhood is certainly multicultural, it is nowhere near as scary as they made it seem in the film. I get it, they needed to play up the differences between Beverly Hills and Downtown L.A. in order to serve the "Sense and Sensibility" story, but at the same time I found it to be disingenuous. Show this community how it really is. Yes there is a huge Latin community in this area, but there is also a huge Asian community. There are a lot of African American, Armenian and Caucasian people that live in these neighborhoods and I didn't see any of them in this movie. The film also makes it look like no one speaks English in these neighborhoods and that is simply not true. While Spanish might be spoken frequently, I assure you that everyone speaks English as well. There are also not gangs roaming the streets the way they make it seem in the film. Don't get me wrong ... I'm sure there is a lot of violence happening in these neighborhoods and plenty of gangs, but it is safe to walk the streets at night, unlike in the movie.
What really saves this film from being a disaster is the wonderful performances from the cast, and considering the level of material they are working with, they deserve a lot of credit. Oscar nominated actress Adriana Barraza ('Babel"), is wonderful in the role of Aunt Aurelia and grounds the film in an authentic reality, which is much needed. Wilmer Valeramma is equally believable in his role and elevates what could have been a very stereotypical part into a well-rounded character. Also very good in the film, and extremely likable, is actor Nicholas D'Agosto ("Election"). D'Agosto has a very likable quality about him and from the second he comes on the screen you want to see more. He also has a wonderful chemistry with actress Camilla Belle. You really are rooting for these two to get together before the film ends. Alexa Vega does an adequate job of making Mary more than just another cliché, but the predictable character seems just too much for the actress to overcome at times. But it is the performance of actress Camilla Belle that really shines in this movie. You might recognize her from films like "The Chumscrubber," or the absolutely excellent, "The Ballad Of Jack And Rose," but the actress shows maturity in this movie that she didn't have in her previous outings. She practically carries the film in some sections and makes Nora a completely three-dimensional character that you can relate to and root for in the film.
Look, it could be the fact that I am not Latino, therefore I could not relate to many of the issues in the film. But I think that is a bad excuse and if the film was executed well, I would have related to it no matter what my cultural background is. In the end, I think the problem with this movie is that it is hallow and doesn't possess the substance that it needs to sustain an audience for 107 minutes. In the end, is "From Prada To Nada" a bad movie? No, its not, but its not a very memorable one either. I would say that unless you are a HUGE Jane Austen fan or really have an interest in this material, skip it at the theaters. Besides the actors elevating the material to a somewhat decent level, there is not a lot to see here, even for fans of romantic-comedies. I will give the filmmakers credit for trying to fill the film with heart rather than silly slapstick, but in the end they fell short and have produced a film that is too predictable for its own good.