I’m not going to spend the next couple of paragraphs pinpointing the differences between From Prada to Nada and the novel it’s based on, Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility. I’m going to judge it on its own terms, for I know that stories have been the inspiration for other stories pretty much as long as the genre has existed. And so, on its own terms, From Prada to Nada is an exhausted, simple-minded romantic comedy with a Latin twist. That it gets by at all can only be attributed to the charm and personality of stars Camilla Bell and Alexa Vega. And even then there are problems because their roles are inauthentic and only in service of the plot, which is itself so predictable that it suggests a negative assumption on the intelligence of the audience.
Bell and Vega play Nora and Mary Dominguez, young sisters living carefree, fabulously wealthy lives in Beverly Hills. When their father suddenly dies of a heart attack (on his birthday, of all days), they discover he was an irresponsible risk-taker and was ready to file for bankruptcy. This, in effect, renders his will meaningless. They also learn of his illegitimate son, Gabriel (Pablo Cruz), whose fiancée, the venomous Olivia (April Bowlby), callously evicts the sisters with little more than the clothes on their backs. Penniless and orphaned, they’re forced to move away from the sheltered affluence of Beverly Hills into the modesty of East Los Angeles, where they take residence with their aunt, Aurelia (Adrianna Bazzara).
Nora, the more responsible and less materialistic of the pair, adjusts fairly well to the new neighborhood. To make ends meet, she quits law school and takes a job at a law firm, where her boss is Edward (Nicholas D’Agosto), Olivia’s kindly but reserved brother. The romantic tension is underwhelming but obviously significant to the story, so we’re made to notice even if they have little if any chemistry. Nora keeps Edward at a distance, since falling in love doesn’t gel with her ten-year plan. When they’re not dancing around the issue of their feelings, they’re handing a case that Nora landed during a bus ride to work, because let’s face it, that’s how all lawyers find clients; a group of Hispanic janitors, who were fired for allegedly stealing cleaning supplies, want to sue their former employer for wages that amount to an hour’s less work than they put in.
Mary, spoiled and ignorant, doesn’t easily adjust to East L.A. Here are some of the things she says about her situation: “We’re going to get shot.” “No more shopping. No more high protein diet. Poor people only eat carbs.” Although the location has changed, she still dresses in designer clothing and stiletto heels, and her hair and makeup seem oddly professional, as if she still had access to expensive salons. In school, she falls for a hunky literature T.A., who she believes can get her back into Beverly Hills. We already know this won’t work out, for she has already met Bruno (Wilmer Valderrama), Aurelia’s neighbor from across the street. He and Mary hit it off like oil and water, mostly because, according to her standards, he just doesn’t look the part. This character is little more than a pawn, included only to teach Mary – and the audience – about the value of not judging a book by its cover.
The movie displays a clear sense of humor when it comes to Mexican stereotypes, and admittedly, some of them are funny. My favorite gag was when Aurelia sees Edward at her door and panics, believing him to be an immigration officer; her relatives, who work in a makeshift clothing factory in the living room, frantically hide their sewing machines and turn the television to a channel showing a Dodgers baseball game. Many of them, however, are not all that funny; my least favorite was a recurring joke about Mary and Nora not being able to speak Spanish, despite the fact that they live in Los Angeles. They represent a thematic undercurrent, namely the sisters learning to embrace their Hispanic roots.
A film about cultural discovery and self-acceptance is perfectly fine. But From Prada to Nada is at heart a romantic comedy, a genre so innately preposterous that anything serious or compelling is overshadowed. Furthermore, the material is about as predictable as it can get. If you don’t go into this movie already knowing how it will end, you obviously haven’t seen as many romcoms as I have – and in most cases, I would say you’re better off. The film has its moments, and in spite of their exaggerated performances, I appreciated Bell and Vega, who are both pretty and pleasantly upbeat. But on the whole, it’s a disposable film, something that, in all likelihood, will not be remembered ten years down the line.