Rated R, 93 min. Directed by Vincent Jay Miller. Starring Jaime Gomez, Seidy Lopez, Zach Galligan, Troy Winbush, Lupe Ontiveros, Stacy Haiduk, Evelina Fernandez, Frank Medrano.
The press materials for Miller's debut feature offer a juicy quote calling it, “the best love story since Pretty Woman” and “a passionate love story set against the backdrop of a mental health clinic.” If anything, this proves that even an excellent group like the Latino film PR firm Premiere Weekend Club is capable of gushing overstatement. (And really, why compare it to Pretty Woman of all things? The film's official Web site fares far better by trumpeting both Moonstruck and Like Water for Chocolate as films of similar tone.) While Gabriela is indeed a passionate love story, it feels more like one of those melodramatic telenovelas that are repeated endlessly each week on Univision. Remove the virtually all-Latino cast (minus Gremlins' Zach Galligan, of course) and it could just as easily be a tepid love story culled from the bottom of the Lifetime network's bottomless barrel o' sap. Either way, it's a gooey, soft-edged clunker that never quite manages to rise above its obvious low-budget constraints. Gomez plays Mike, a worker at a mental health care facility (exactly what he does is one of the film's more enduring mysteries) who longs for romance when he's not shooting the breeze with his coworker Douglas (Winbush), a ladies' man ever eager to help Mike score. It's here that Mike first meets Gabriela (Lopez), the new psychologist on the block. Their first meeting, all doe-eyed looks and slowly bubbling heat, sets the tone for the rest of the film. (Miller paints not only this scene but almost all that follow with a dewy, soft-focus brush straight out of soft-core porn; it's as though Bob Guccione had suddenly, finally, gone completely overboard and retreated from the fleshy world of Penthouse into bad romantic comedy.) Smitten, Mike nonetheless goes out on a pre-existing date with a woman “who would be a princess in Hungary if they still had that sort of thing over there.” Miller, working from his own script, piles on some of the most ill-advised attempts at humor in their dinner scene, as the Versace-clad woman stews over Mike's lack of decent clothes, transportation, and finally, his misattribution of a line from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Clearly, they're not meant for each other, and thus the way is cleared for Mike and Gabriela to move forward. If only we cared. As a slew of obvious plot machinations grind onward (so labored is the plotting you can catch a glimpse of the final resolution of Mike and Gabriela's situation some 10 minutes into the film), Gomez and Lopez pull out all the stops in their characterizations. In short order there are shy puppy-dog smiles, tears, and -- lest anyone think the road to true love is ever smooth -- Gabriela's fiancé Pat (Galligan) sits at his kitchen table, filling out the wedding invitations, apparently oblivious to the fact that his betrothed is falling for another guy. Through it all Miller pours on the treacle, back-lighting everything in sight, and using the sort of diffused lighting technique usually reserved for overworked Hallmark moments. His intentions are pure, no doubt, and I feel a bit of a cad knocking a film so clearly on the side of true love, but Gabriela is simply a far too obvious show, and about as subtle as a Cupidean quarrel straight through mi vida loca.
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