An identity-swap comedy that is less amusing than the telenovelas it pokes fun at.
Ana Maria in Novela Land
Like the casual time-travel movie, which holds in it a wealth of practical and scientific implications, similarly do I find myself questioning the sense of the identity-swap film. Especially so when it’s a comedic identity-swap–though, come to think of it, I can’t think of a single dramatic identity-swap movie. Face/Off definitely doesn’t count. In the midst of absurdity, the comedy isn’t there unless someone questions what’s happening up to a believable amount. In Georgina Riedel’s Ana Maria in Novela Land, Ana Maria (Edy Ganem) an idealistic wayward millennial-sort obsessed with her favorite telenovela magically swaps places with the dramatic star of the show, Ariana Tomosa (also Ganem). Yearning for passion in her own life, this appears to be a dream come true for Ana Maria, but the (obvious) impracticability of living in a TV world eventually catches up to her. Filled with humorous potential, this farfetched situational comedy chokes on its own premise when none of the characters question the fantastical elements, making for a well-performed but never more than chuckle-some film.
Ana Maria starts her adventure by getting herself fired from her job when she overtly writes fan fiction during business hours. Her bombastic exit, complete with proclamation to co-workers that she “never washed her hands after using the bathroom” showcase her immaturity and her removed mental state from reality. She goes on to do almost everything else wrong with her day. Disappointing her mother (Elizabeth Peña in her last performance, which almost in itself makes the film worth watching) with news of her layoff. Disappointing her sister Ana Gloria (Mercedes Mason) by missing her bridal dress fitting. Disappointing her romantically inclined and good-looking neighbor Tony (Michael Steger) by blowing off his advances on her way home. Disappointing her best friend Laura (Carla Morrison) when she misses her music show to live-tweet Pasión sin Limites, her favorite show.
On-screen the show’s star, Ariana traverses her way through an impending marriage to a much older man consumed with being a father-figure, while she secretly cavorts (and maybe even falls in love) with his brooding and passionate son, Armando (also Steger). Meanwhile she’s being blackmailed by a sinister figure (Luis Guzmán). During the show’s climactic moment lightning strikes the house, the lights go out, and Ana Maria disappears. When she wakes, she’s in Ariana’s clothing, living her telenovela life. Ariana, on the other hand, has switched places, finding herself in the “real world” and in Ana Maria’s bed.
Thus begins the traditional hijinks that ensue from an identity-swap. Ana Maria thinks she must be dreaming and decides to enjoy her stint in the TV world, taking advantage of Armando and commenting on the lack of tongue he uses when kissing. Ariana, used to the dramatics of her world, first believes herself to be kidnapped and makes a getaway, and then later decides she must have amnesia, a common malady where she comes from. Ariana reacts the most believably—since she’s a TV character and we’re more open to her level of crazy—but even she makes no attempts to figure out where the people of her world went, how quick she is to forget her life and embrace what these strange people tell her. Ana Maria, however, takes quite a while to accept that she’s not dreaming, and then when she does she still isn’t acting quite as freaked out as we’d expect from a character based in reality. Though in her defense, she was never all that realistic a character to begin with. How much more playful could the film have been had anyone thought to play it a bit straighter?
Edy Ganem has energy for days in both her role as Ana Maria and as Ariana (no bangs, more make-up, so different!). She carries the film to a point, but ultimately isn’t given enough depth or allowed to go far enough with the jokes with each character to redeem the film entirely. Elizabeth Peña as her mother is her usual lovely and hilarious self. Watching her and knowing this is one of her last films is bittersweet. The film is shot with all the usual fluff and color of a female-led comedy, attention to outfits and make-up being key. It fits the subject-matter.
Those accustomed to the telenovela and its tropes will find the film endearing. Its charm carries it to a point. Those who see the set-up for some truly funny jokes will be disappointed that the film doesn’t even play into the expected comedy of an identity-swap film. Having previously directed How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer 10 years ago (also with Peña), it’s clear Riedel wants to convey the intricacies of the latino community, especially their family dynamics. And to be honest, having seen how well she expressed the intricacies of the female perspective in that film makes it all the more disappointing that she wouldn’t opt to make Ana Maria a slightly more fleshed out female in this one.
Those that would argue comedies follow no rules just don’t understand what triggers their own amusement. And those who attempt to make a comedy, better pay attention to the rules. Not to mention the precedents of other identity-swapping films in this case. Ana Maria in Novela Land is sweet, but ultimately doesn’t push itself to be clever with an overused gimmick. And in this modern world, this film adds to the piles of evidence that looks won’t get you anywhere without some wit to back it up.