As a Latina female currently defending my dissertation on 19th Century English Romance Fiction, I am clearly the most suited person to write about this film. The question is, do I need to be? Should I only be qualified to speak on certain cultural aspects of films if I fall within their demographic? It’s unfair that when a filmmaker of any ethnicity makes a film, suddenly it’s expected to speak for that entire culture. But what if the film itself tries to make that claim? From Prada to Nada touts itself as “a Latina take on Sense and Sensibility.” But when all the jokes are about stealing hubcaps or immigration, when all the Mexican characters are basically janitors or housemaids, when all the Spanish being spoken is pretty much menu items or shouting “Aye yo mio!” or “Madre dios!,” whose fault is that? Latinos get treated like Asians — sure there are hundreds of different flavors from Dominicans to Hondurans to Puerto Ricans to Mexicans, but you’re all just crowding the Home Depot parking lots to most folks. Pajiba has gotten shouted at repeatedly for disrespecting Latino culture, but why the fuck aren’t you lining up and protesting this shit? When your own folks are totally selling out your culture for a quick buck — and this was directed by and written by an all Latino crew — why the fuck aren’t you up in arms about that? Is this just a case of “a sister has to make money” or shouldn’t you demand better? And I’m not talking about George Lopez. Because if you think quoting “South Park” is more offensive than Jennifer Lopez herself trying to claim she’s still “Jenny from the Block” and co-opting her ethnicity to gain street cred, you’re selling me shit and telling me it’s ground beef. I long for the day when a filmmaker is talented first and racially identified second, but From Prada to Nada is not helping your cause.
From Prada to Nada is about the Dominguez sisters, two wealthy daughters of a widowed financial something or other….it doesn’t matter, because he’s going to die melodramatically while dancing between his daughters to a mariachi-performed sad version of “Cielito Lindo” — the “aye, yai yai yai” song. Nora, a law student, is the smart one (Camilla Belle). We know this because she has brown hair and glasses. Mary, a slacker who spends all her money on Beverly Hills haute couture, is the spoiled one (Alexa Vega). We know this because she looks like Lindsay Lohan. When the father dies, their mysterious illegitimate brother Gabe (Pablo Cruz) shows up with his cunty wife Olivia (April Bowlby, The Slammin’ Salmon) to flip the mansion to pay off the massive debt the father has accrued. Now the two girls are penniless and forced to move to East Los Angeles with their aunt Aurelia (Adriana Barraza).
The film itself is classified as a dramatic romantic-comedy, so you already know that it’s going to be fucking confused. I understand losing wealth and having to live for yourselves is terrible, but that fact that their fish out of water comedy has to come at the expense of an entire culture is kind of fucking bullshit. There are millions and millions of people who move to Los Angeles and live entirely happy lives day to day without clubbing in West Hollywood or driving BMWs. Both these girls live with their loving family in a pretty nice house in a not terrible neighborhood. But to make them acclimate happily would be to deny the opportunity to have gangbanging cholas menacing them and to have them sell a fancy handbag and expensive car for a beater Honda hatchback and a bus pass. It’s the same reason why every time they sit down to a meal, it’s Mexican food. Because god forbid a Latino should ever make pasta or a hamburger. It’s a damn shame, because you can tell that there are moments where the Mexican culture is captured perfectly — a meal for one is a meal for two or the nosiness of the loved ones — but a studio flack was brought in to make stale 1980’s “Night at the Improv” comedy routine jokes. When later in the film, a stand is made against a racist employer, they bring out the gem, “If you call the INS, we’ll call the IRS.” Even though it’s been called ICE since 2002. Because God forbid Mexicans actually have green cards. Then what will the Blue Collar Comedy Tour make fun of?
I’ve used up all the street cred living in a North Hollywood residential complex surrounded by apartments full of the same extended carne asada barbecuing Hispanic family and being identified as “the white people” will earn me, so let’s twist up the panties of the Austen scholars. If you hold up the bare bones of Sense and Sensibility to From Prada to Nada, as a modern retelling, it kind of lines up. It’s basically about two argumentative sisters, one pragmatic and one flighty, dealing with their romantic entanglements.The pragmatic one falls for their half-brother’s nasty wife’s well-to-do brother, Edward Ferris (Nicholas D’Agosto, Fired Up!), only to be thwarted by his engagement to Lucy. And the other sister swoons for her T.A., a Garcia Lorca scholar ne’er-do-well, Rodrigo (Kuno Becker), while spurning the affections of their older gruff neighbor. But other than a happier ever after that would make Walt Disney thaw with red-faced shame, that’s where the similarities end and the angry Austenites gnash their teeth. It’s a little like two teens committing a murder-suicide and someone claiming, “Wow. Just like Romeo and Juliet.” If they had actually followed through on the original plotting, it would have been some Maury Povich level shit that would have made Telemundo plotz with envy. Envy and guys with big moustaches dressed in diapers.
Let’s start with Mary’s arc. Mary hates everything about it, doesn’t want to admit she’s poor or Mexican. She constantly gets into little The Outsiders disputes with the gruff thug Bruno who lives across the street, played by a tatted-up Wilmer Valderrama. He’s extremely handy, and helps out the aunt and family, but he’s clearly disgusted by Mary’s disgust with her disgusting surroundings. Mary crushes on her T.A. Rodrigo, but anyone familiar with Willoughby knows that it ends bad. But not as badly as it should. Rodrigo bangs her, but then shows up later with a hot wife and pretends that she’s just a drunk student. It would have been so much cooler if Rodrigo had knocked up some teen relation of Bruno’s, like a sister or one of his art students, and then married her in a shotgun wedding. But at least she doesn’t develop the boo-hoo-honic plague like in the book. Instead, she gets into a severe car accident. But you know, she survives and then makes out with Bruno because it says so in the script.
If that’s bad, you’ll just love Nora’s plot. Nora is a law student who wants to help the unfortunate and downtrodden. She meets up with Edward, Olivia’s brother, who happens to be a lawyer. He tricks her into working for him, and all the women at the firm think she’s fucking her way to the top. He clearly has a crush on her, and so they end up making out when she gets drunk on tequila shots at some sort of Mexican screaming holiday. She feels guilty, because she wants to earn it on her own. Which makes her kind of like an Austen heroine. Except then she spends the rest of the movie pining for Edward, finds out he got engaged in like fifteen seconds to Lucy, a friend of Olivia, and dresses frumpily to go to the engagement party. She chickens out, but then later gives one of the worst “I Love You” speeches in the history of romantic comedy. It’s the verbal equivalent of the boom box eating Lloyd Dobler’s tape in Say Anything. Inexplicably, it must work, and he ends up marrying her anyway. If this wasn’t just a half-baked version of Two Weeks Notice, it’d be bad enough, but it’s so fucking off on what happens in the novel. Edward and Elinor are always in love, they have to fight against social convention to be together. Ironically, it would have made more sense if Nora was a cleaning lady at the law firm and they decided to be together anyway. They stole from the wrong bad rom-com; they meant to use Maid in Manhattan. Starring Jennifer Lopez.
Not to mention the fact that Lucy Steele, one of literature’s finest evil bitches gets relegated to the role of cardboard placeholder. She could have been played by a wedding invitation. Plus, her scheming manipulative ways are reduced to a shitty rejected e-Harmony commercial. She’s not a liar. She’s not a fiendish twat. She’s an out of focus amorphous blob in the background.
The Mexican people are well-represented by this cast, with Camilla Bella (Brazilian), Alexa Vega (half-Colombian), Wilmer Valderrama (Venezuelan), and Nicholas D’Agosto (spent a semester in Dominican Republic). The rest of the cast seems to be some kind of Latino: all the seamstresses working illegally in the aunt’s house, the janitors and cleaning ladies that Nora helps on her bus ride, the servants at Casa Bonita — their old house, the chola gang, the sassy hairstylists and construction workers, and of course, whoever it is that gives Mary a ride home from the hospital in their taco truck. I know it’s a stretch, but sometimes, Mexican people are nurses and paralegals and teachers. Why sometimes they are lawyers! I know it’s important to show the authentic Mexican’s differences from the whatever racist food metaphor is the Latino equivalent of Asian Twinkies or black Oreos, but it’s not nearly as funny as making a Chihuahua do step-and-fetch for a sub-par representation of ethnic food. Hey! Maybe the Panda Express panda can start swapping his L’s and R’s! And he could wok up the Beverly Hills Chihuahua!
Like Jennifer Lopez, From Prada to Nada was more concerned with talking up its own Latinness rather than just being a good movie. J-Lo was an amazing example of what a Latin star can do: work your ass up from being a fly girl on a comedy show to having your own #1 dance album and being a legitimate actress. She was a star, who was also Latina. Then she decided to make her fame all about being Latina, instead of about being a talented person. I would have much rather watched a Sense and Sensibility modernization, that happened to take place in East LA. There are plenty of films like Real Women Have Curves and Like Water for Chocolate that are great movies first and foremost, and amazing representations of their cultures second. This one ain’t.