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Movie review: 'From Prada to Nada'

A good-natured cast partially redeems this Latino twist on Jane Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility.'

January 31, 2011|By Robert Abele, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Kuno Becker as Rodrigo, left, Alexa Vega as Mary, Adriana Barraza as Aunt Aurelia and Catalina Lopez as Trinita in the movie "From Prada to Nada."
Kuno Becker as Rodrigo, left, Alexa Vega as Mary, Adriana Barraza as Aunt… (Pantelion / OddLot Entertainment…)

It might have seemed like a fertile and fun idea to update Jane Austen's reversal-of-fortune romance "Sense and Sensibility" to the class-and-culture disparity between Beverly Hills and East Los Angeles. But the regrettably titled "From Prada to Nada" has more in common with a slapped-together TV movie than a timeless comedy of manners.

The Dashwood sisters of Austen's novel are now Nora and Mary Dominguez, whose affluent, assimilated mansion existence is upended when their father's death leaves them broke, necessitating a lifestyle adjustment to the homier, scrappier Boyle Heights enclave of their Tia Aurelia (Adriana Barraza).

Bookish Nora (Camilla Belle), with designs on the legal profession, embraces the move and its opportunity to reconnect with her roots, while status-obsessed, fully Americanized Mary (Alexa Vega) feels she's in an ethnic heritage nightmare.

The resolutely artless "From Prada to Nada," which somehow took three screenwriters and wasn't so much directed by commercials guy Angel Gracia as caught on camera, is unfortunately the kind of attitude-correcting romcom that prefers plot point touchstones to believable human interaction.

References to "The House of Bernarda Alba," Frida Kahlo and Mexican murals, therefore, feel like a list of cultural signifiers being checked off rather than lively details in a story of evolving identity. Even the ubiquitous ranchera staple "Cielito Lindo" is the soundtrack to the girls' initially jarring change of scenery. Ay, ay, ay, indeed.

That said, the movie is not without its moments of comic bounce and earned warmth, thanks almost solely to the cast. Belle and Vega couldn't seem less like sisters, but they're good-natured performers, which goes a long way. But where the gangly Belle lacks technique — mostly relying on the melancholic beauty of her features, as effective as they were playing Daniel Day Lewis' daughter in "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" — Vega, always so charming in the "Spy Kids" franchise, has the magnetic confidence and easy physicality of a laugh-getting pro.

They're admirably aided by the story's eligible men: Nicholas D'Agosto as the sweet-faced Caucasian lawyer who sets his sights on Nora, and Wilmer Valderrama as tattooed barrio hunk Bruno, who banters with and secretly pines for the spoiled Mary.

Only April Bowlby's over-the-top sneeriness as the cruel gringa sister-in-law, who initially kicks the sisters out of the mansion, feels like the wrong kind of primary color in this predictable splatter of romantic comedy cliches.

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