It’s not absolutely necessary to be familiar with the conventions and archetypes of soapy telenovelas to enjoy a few laughs with “Ana Maria in Novela Land,” a lightweight comedy about an obsessed viewer who magically switches places with the leading lady of her favorite TV show. But those who have at least a nodding acquaintance with the highly addictive serial dramas will smile even more often than the uninitiated as director and co-scripter Georgina Garcia Riedel (“How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer”) affectionately satirizes both the limited-run series and their most avid aficionados. This overlong but modestly amusing bilingual indie could attract a few fans of its own in limited theatrical release and ancillary platforms.
Edy Ganem, of Lifetime’s “Devious Maids,” is by turns perky, sultry and screechy in the dual role of Ariana, the sexy/sullen heroine of a popular telenovela titled “Pasion sin limites” (“Passion Without Limits”), and Ana Maria, an under-achieving twentysomething who spends far too much time focused on the soap. Between live-tweeting the telenovela while it airs, writing fan fiction featuring its lead characters, and spending almost every waking moment mulling over new plot developments, Ana Maria has little time for anything else. Unfortunately, her inattentiveness has cost her three jobs. Even more unfortunately, she’s unable, or unwilling, to devote time to her sister’s upcoming wedding or her best’s friend’s musical endeavors.
When a rogue lightning bolt and unexplained movie magic conspire to transport Ana Maria and Ariana into each other’s worlds, Ana Maria views the switcheroo as, quite literally, a dream come true. Trouble is, dreams have a nasty habit of turning into nightmares — especially when, while living la vida loca, Ana Maria finds herself torn between a wealthy older suitor (Juan Pablo Gamboa) and the suitor’s hunky son (Michael Steger), and blackmailed by the suitor’s creepy business associate (a zestfully over-the-top Luis Guzman).
Meanwhile, back in the “real” world, Ariana is horrified to find herself in the modest East Los Angeles home where 26-year-old Ana Maria still lives with her parents (Elizabeth Pena, Nestor Serrano). At first, she fears — not without some justification — that she has been kidnapped. Her bizarre behavior puzzles and upsets Ana Maria’s clueless mom and dad, who assume — not without a lot of justification — their little girl has gone bonkers. Fortunately, they live next door to a nice young doctor (also played by Steger), who’s so sweet on Ana Maria that he doesn’t mind that she isn’t quite herself these days.
“Ana Maria in Novela Land” plays like a replay of bits and pieces borrowed from earlier (and better) comedies — “Pleasantville” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo” are just two of its most obvious sources — and the ratio of frantic vamping to truly funny stuff grows higher as the film reaches the finish line. Still, Ganem has sufficient verve and appeal to sustain interest in both of her characters, and the sporadic tweaking of telenovelas and the fans who love them is often quite clever.
Inside the world of “Pasion sin limites,” Ana Maria is befuddled to discover this is a place where toilets (and television sets) don’t exist, dowdy maids have colorfully checkered pasts, long-deceased characters aren’t necessarily dead, and unseen musicians provide intrusive accompaniment for every melodramatic moment. Meanwhile, back in reality, a Korean-American cop (John Patrick Barry) proudly announces he learned Spanish while studying — yes, you guessed it — telenovelas.
Production designer Laurel Frank and costume designer Lauren Oppelt contribute more than their fair share of sight gags while contrasting the lavish lifestyles of the telenovela cast with the unremarkable ordinariness of Ana Maria’s workaday world. The end credits respectfully note that “Ana Maria in Novela Land” is dedicated to Pena, who died last fall at age 55.