One thing telenovelas always are is dramatic. One thing they never are is cinematic. Bringing them to the big screen is a challenge, but not one that phases writer/director Georgina Garcia Riedel for her third feature Ana Maria in Novela Land. Edy Ganem stars as Ana Maria, who is essentially a Hispanic Zooey Deschanel as a self-indulgent and quirky twenty-something girl who's struggling to get her life together. Yes, it's as twee as you can get, and it's as endearing as you find that archetype wherever else you see it. Ana Maria has just lost her job and grapples with her rocky relationship with her soon-to-be wed sister. Instead of paying attention to the important things she lives for her favorite telenovela Passion Without Limits, although it's nearing its series finale.
The show is nothing special, just the typical campy melodrama with beautiful people and lots of money and excess. The beautiful lead of show is cheating on her rich older fiancé with his son just days before their wedding, while Luis Guzman plans various blackmails. Lightning and cheesy effects lead Ana to swap places with the show's protagonist, Ana Gloria, and she lives out what appears to be the best dream of her life. Meanwhile, the lead of the show played by Mercedes Mason lives in reality in Ana Maria's body, dealing with the horror of a different world. Ana Maria enjoys her time frolicking with her favorite characters, even after finding out it's not a dream, until she realizes that once the show ends, what will happen to her? The film's premise wants this to be a maturation story but there's little in the life of the fictional Ana Gloria to draw parallels with the real Ana Maria.
Even so, it has a lot of fun with its concept and they certainly know their way around telenovelas. A lot of the film's pleasures derive from meta moments, such as there never being a toilet because you never see them on television. However, the writing always takes the easy options, and you're rarely left surprised, albeit not disappointed either. The joy mostly comes from the comedy of misunderstandings with Mercedes Mason embracing reality with the melodrama of novelas. They're constantly on the ball with the differences and Mason's conviction makes it hilarious, especially during a scene where she thinks her private life is on display while she sees Passion Without Limits billboards everywhere. Michael Steger disappears into his dual roles as a nerd in reality and then a tough guy in the telenovela, even though he doesn't fit either. Fortunately, it took a long while to see that it was the same actor so he certainly drew a good line between the mannerisms, but unfortunately he never shined or gave a memorable moment that didn't rely on his co-stars reactions.
This is Elisabeth Pena's final role before she died late last year. There isn't much for her to do but she brings a welcoming warmth to the film and is always committed to her part. However, the film feels more like a TV pilot than a movie due to its low production value. Even Jane the Virgin was more cinematic than this. You can't really capture magic when it looks so thinly veiled and uncinematic. Perhaps it will have life On Demand instead. I can deal with its sentiment and cheese, but it really should have shaved itself of the few outlandish moments and added a little more comprehensive epilogue to bring things full circle. Ultimately, Ana Maria in Novela Land hinges on its protagonist with her goals and rewards, but it hardly brings the goods. Granted, you need a massive suspension of disbelief and an investment in intentionally poor television to get into it but it has a few things to enjoy at the very least, in particular the way it pokes fun out of the telenovelas it's so passionate about. It makes for a breezy inoffensive viewing but not the same escapism as Ana Maria experiences.
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