Based loosely and playfully on Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” “From Prada to Nada” is a predictable but pleasant comedy about two well-to-do Mexican-American sisters who must reset their priorities and rediscover their roots after their fortunes take a tumble. Though it has crossover potential, this mostly family-oriented confection will be promoted and attended primarily in urban areas with sizable Hispanic populations.
Scripters Fina Torres, Luis Alfaro and Craig Fernandez transport the bare bones of Austen’s original storyline from 19th-century England to 21st-century Los Angeles, to focus on the misadventures of two attractive Latina siblings: Nora (Camilla Belle), a seriously career-focused law student who claims to have no time in her life for romance, and Mary (Alexa Vega), a frivolous shopaholic who’s such a Beverly Hills brat that she refuses to admit she actually is of Mexican descent.
Their spoiled and sheltered lives are rudely disrupted by the sudden death of their doting father, an improvident risk-taker who turns out to have been bankrupt at the time of his fatal heart attack. Ousted from their opulent Beverly Hills mansion, Nora and Mary are forced to move in with their tough-loving Aunt Aurelia (Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza of “Babel”), who resides with her extended family in a crowded East L.A. home.
Neither sister is entirely comfortable in their new surroundings — and not just because neither knows how to speak Spanish. (Although there’s a generous sprinkling of Spanish dialogue, “From Prada to Nada” is for all practical purposes an English-language pic.)
Mary is frankly aghast by her downward mobility, fearing exposure to gang life, public transportation and, worst of all, inelegant cuisine. (“No high-protein diet,” she wails. “Poor people only eat carbs.”) Nora makes a slightly easier adjustment, dropping out of law school to find a job with a legal firm. But she’s thrown off-balance by unfamiliar, unexpected and (she claims) unwanted romantic urgings as she reluctantly falls for Edward (Nicholas D’Agosto), a handsome young Anglo attorney.
Making his feature directing debut, TV commercials vet Angel Gracia maintains a brisk pace and a bright mood, despite some potentially offensive gags that rely on cliches and ethnic stereotypes (the seamstresses who ply their trade in Aunt Aurelia’s living room fear every unfamiliar visitor may be an INS agent). And while his touch isn’t quite so light when it comes to handling the script’s large swaths of sentimentality, Gracia doesn’t diminish the amusement quotient even while hard-selling the importance of family ties and ethnic pride.
There’s something at once fair-minded and calculated about the division of supporting characters into scoundrels or sympathetic figures. Gabriel (Pablo Cruz), the illegitimate half-brother of Nora and Mary, evicts his sisters from their home largely at the insistence of his Anglo fiancee (April Bowlby), a thoroughgoing bitch. On the other hand, the hunky Hispanic teaching assistant (Kuno Becker) who captures Mary’s heart turns out to be even more callous in his cruelty.
Fortunately, Mary finds a more suitable Mr. Right, a street-wise handyman (Wilmer Valderrama) living just across the street from her aunt’s East L.A. home. And much like Austen’s Elinor Dashwood, Nora manages to overcome a temporary impediment to her own happily-ever-aftering.
Belle is extremely engaging as she plays Nora as a bookish beauty who may be too smart, or at least too careful, for her own good. Vega, all grown up since her appearances in Robert Rodriguez’s “Spy Kids” trilogy, is more believable here as a material girl than as a wised-up adult. Still, the give and take between the two leads is credibly and often comically sisterly.
Tech values are fine, although a handful scenes seem distractingly skittish because of Hector Ortega’s handheld lensing.