It's Better if Gabriela Doesn't Die

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AFI Fest

Spanish-language telenovelas, the Latin version of our TV soaps, have become a well-known phenomenon in this country since the enormous success of ABC's "Ugly Betty," based on a Colombian TV hit. Mexican director Sergio Umansky and screenwriter Ricardo Hernandez Anzola bring a lot of sass to "It's Better if Gabriela Doesn't Die," their comedy about a south-of-the-border version of "As the World Turns." The film had its world premiere at AFI Fest, where it amused audiences, though it's ultimately too spotty and far-fetched to make much of a splash in U.S. theaters.

The film begins with an uneasy encounter between the two main characters. Miguel (Mauricio Isaac), a writer for a torrid telenovela titled "Destiny of Love," is out joy riding and smoking pot with a few friends when he is pulled over by the cops. Things look dicey until Miguel tells the arresting officer his occupation. It turns out that Bracho (Dagoberto Gama), the portly middle-aged cop, is a huge fan of the series. He begs Miguel for an inside scoop, and Miguel tells him that Gabriela, the dragon lady on the show, will marry her paramour. Bracho lets the writer off and quickly regales his own family and drinking buddies with the advance tip. The only problem is that back on the set, Ana Victoria (Gabriela Roel), the actress who plays Gabriela, starts making unreasonable demands on the producers, and they decide to write the character off the show by giving her a fatal disease.

When Bracho watches a subsequent episode and learns of Gabriela's imminent demise, he loses face with friends and family. He decides to strong-arm Miguel to change the story line, but matters quickly spin out of control.

The film prompts comparisons to "Tootsie," a classic backstage tour of soap operas, but the comparisons do not work to the new film's favor. For that matter, "Gabriela" isn't nearly as funny as "Soapdish," a wacky 1991 satire with Sally Field and Kevin Kline. There are clever touches in "Gabriela," but it needs a richer gallery of characters. An extra who stalks Miguel, hoping for a juicier role, is one of the few amusing characters in the ensemble. The head writer on the show, a mysterious figure named Abigail (Rene Casados), turns out to have a secret sexual history that is almost obligatory in these satirical soap operas, but the revelations fail to generate the anticipated comic sparks. In fact, the film turns more and more strained as it lurches toward its conclusion.

The acting is uneven. Gama gets maximum mileage out of the character of the dogged cop, but Isaac is rather flat as the hapless hero. Roel has the right hauteur to be cast as a small-screen villain, but the script doesn't take full advantage of her talents. Technical credits are adequate, though the film cries out for more visual panache. One goes in rooting for "Gabriela" and walks out feeling deflated.

IT'S BETTER IF GABRIELA DOESN'T DIE
Producciones Tercer Mundo
Credits:
Director-producer: Sergio Umansky
Screenwriter: Ricardo Hernandez Anzola
Executive producers: Maite Arguelles, Carlos Morales
Director of photography: Celiana Cardenas
Production designers: Monica Brand, Francisco Lopez
Music: Renaud Barbier
Costume designer: Maria Estela Fernandez
Editor: Max Chamberlain
Cast:
Miguel: Mauricio Isaac
Bracho: Dagoberto Gama
Ana Victoria/Gabriela: Gabriela Roel
Extra: Miguel Pizarro
Abigail: Rene Casados
Justino: Martin LaSalle
Aponte: Julio Casado
La Protagonista: Alejandra Barros
El Protagonista: Eduardo Santamarina
Running time -- 96 minutes
No MPAA rating
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