The catchy title of the new romantic comedy From Prada to Nada succinctly describes what befalls two privileged Mexican-American sisters after their father unexpectedly dies, leaving them with, well, practically nada. If this sounds like the set-up for a Latino Sense and Sensibility, that's because it is.
The screenwriting team, which includes Venezuelan filmmaker Fina Torres ( Woman on Top), have transposed Jane Austen's 1811 novel to contemporary East L.A. with surprising reverence - preserving most of the character roles and main plot points including, of course, those anticipated parties that are pivotal events in every Austen book and screen adaptation.
Kicked out of their beloved L.A. mansion by their gold-digging future sister-in-law who plans to sell the place, Nora (a disappointingly bland Camilla Belle) and Mary (grown-up Spy Kids star, the sassy Alexa Vega) pack up their luxury car and drive to the bustling home of their estranged aunt (the wonderful Adriana Barraza, under-used here). The warm-hearted, no-nonsense neighbourhood den mother promptly sells the car and Mary's Prada handbag to solve the gals' immediate cash crunch.
Nora, the older, responsible, charitable one, sets aside her law studies and gets a job to pay for the college tuition of Mary, the younger, frivolous, self-centred one, who is more skittish and embarrassed about their new surroundings. The sisters gradually adapt to their new social standing, learn to resolve their differences and, oh yes, experience the flush of budding romance and the pain and confusion of heartbreak.
First-time feature director Angel Gracia misses an opportunity to let the East L.A. neighbourhood strut its stuff - after all, period adaptations of Austen never miss a chance to milk the scenery. And the Mexican culture the sisters are newly exploring is too often portrayed through clichés. When a well-dressed Anglo stranger knocks on their aunt's door, she assumes it's immigration and hustles away the neighbourhood ladies of her under-the-table tailoring shop. And, really, how many times do we need to hear the chestnut "Cielito Lindo?"
If you know Sense and Sensibility, or any of its period screen adaptations, it is mildly amusing to spot how From Prada to Nada updates the story by flipping relationship dynamics and moving events around for a more modern dramatic arc.
While the older sister's love interest is elusive in Austen's novel, here Nora pushes back the romantic advances of Edward (Nicholas D'Agosto), a lawyer who helps her with a pro bono case involving fired Mexican janitors. Early in the novel, the younger sister is rescued from a sprained ankle by a dashing gentlemen who becomes her suitor; in the film Mary's traumatic accident comes late, just after she realizes the dreamy Spanish-lit TA she's been sleeping with may not be Mr. Right.
But just because you know every twist in the road doesn't mean From Prada to Nada can't be fun; remember Clueless, the cheeky 1995 update of Austen's novel Emma? From Prada to Nada tries, but it's just predictable rom-com fare in need of a lot more spice.
From Prada to Nada
- Directed by Angel Gracia
- Written by Fina Torres, Luis Alfaro and Craig Fernandez
- Starring Camilla Belle, Alexa Vega, Adriana Barraza and Nicholas D'Agosto
- Classification: PG
Special to The Globe and Mail