Monday, September 15, 2014

TELENOVELA WATCH: 'Manual Para Ser Feliz' Final Week; Thoughts on 'Hasta El Fin Del Mundo' and 'La Malquerida'

Manual Para Ser Feliz (weekdays at 3 p.m. ET) is entering its final full week on MundoFox. This quirky and charming Colombian telenovela really grew on me. There is a shaggy dog quality to its characters, not just the misfits working in the office, but the leading lady fashion designer and her cousin and even the villains that I just found very appealing. It is a modest production that never seems to be reaching for its effects. There is very little plot and almost no actual jokes – the interest and humor comes in observing the little details in the characters’ lives and their day-to-day interactions with each other. In a telenovela format which deals almost exclusively in larger-than-life dramas, there is a cheeky perversity in how Manual Para Ser Feliz focuses on the small and mundane.

Hasta El Fin Del Mundo
There is an unfortunate déjà vu for telenovela watchers who keep abreast of international productions. The Mexican produced Hasta El Fin Del Mundo is the third version of this story I’ve encountered in a couple years after Dulce Amor, the Argentine original, and a current Chilean version called El Amor lo Manejo Yo. In the first few weeks, the two new versions are almost scene-for-scene retreads of the original.

For those coming to the story fresh, Hasta El Fin Del Mundo (weeknights at 9 p.m. ET on Univision) is a respectable version. It is similar in structure to another often produced Argentine telenovela, Amor en Custodia, which was most recently remade as Amores Verdaderos, only instead of a wealthy mother and daughter romancing their bodyguards, Dulce Amor and Hasta El Fin Del Mundo feature a pair of wealthy sisters falling for their chauffeurs.

Pedro Fernández is an atypical leading man. He is not believable as the neighborhood lothario and his acting is filled with too many ah-shucks mannerisms; but there is an earnestness and charm that helps sell the budding romance with the leading lady played by Marjorie de Sousa. He is a likable performer and the fact he isn't a run-of-the-mill telenovela dreamboat only means the producers, writers and actors have to work harder to build a convincing relationship between the protagonists based on something more substantial than the stereotypical telenovela instant romances attained by merely gazing into each other’s eyes.

The telenovela takes its time in establishing that relationship, all of its relationships in fact, and in telling its story. That is one of the qualities of Hasta El Fin Del Mundo I like best. There is an unfortunate growing trend in telenovelas, especially those from Televisa and Telemundo, of faster moving narratives at the expense of coherent plot and detailed characters. Of the telenovelas currently in prime time in the US, Mi Corazón es Tuyo, La Malquerida, Reina de Corazones and En Otra Piel all suffer to varying degrees from slapdash, careering plots.

Through the first four weeks, Marjorie de Sousa’s performance as the aloof, rigidly proper eldest sister who runs the family’s chocolate business is my favorite in her career. The emotional frostiness of the character seems to have tamped down de Sousa’s broader acting tendencies. It’s similar to another performance of hers I liked from the 2010 Miami telenovela Sacrificio de Mujer where she was miscast in a role she was far too young for and in trying to play older, similarly scaled down her performance. Thankfully far removed from the silly caricature villain she played in her previous telenovela, Amores Verdaderos, de Sousa is quite good in Hasta El Fin Del Mundo - her complex relationships with her mother and sisters, the dutiful through-the-motions romance with her fiancé played by Julian Gil, and her character’s growing interest in the chauffeur are all believable.

Claudia Álvarez as the emotionally unstable, failed actress middle sister is also good, perhaps too good as a woman with frequent emotional outbursts and panic attacks is rather hard to endure on the television screen night after night. She shows enough vulnerability to offset the flakier traits of her character and has excellent chemistry with Diego Olivera who plays her chauffeur and love interest. The character’s garish makeup was a poor choice by whoever made that decision.

Olivia Bucio as the girls’ strict artistic mother and Alejandro Tommasi as the debonair homosexual majordomo of the household are both giving lovely performances. Jade Fraser as the youngest sister doesn't seem like much of an actress, but as in her previous telenovela, Por Siempre Mi Amor, there is just something enormously likable about her. After all her bedroom scenes in La Tempestad were cut by Univision, it is nice to see Mariana Seoane loll in sheets while plotting with fellow baddie Julian Gil.

While it ultimately makes some sense due to where the plot leads, it is disconcerting seeing César Évora as the neighborhood shopkeeper. You giggle when you first see him in an apron, clutching a broom, nagging at whippersnappers because it is so not the type of role one is accustomed to seeing Évora do.

La Malquerida (weeknights at 10 p.m. ET on Univision) is the first outright dud from Televisa to reach US screens this year. It does not reach the embarrassing lows Por Siempre Mi Amor or De Que Te Quiero, Te Quiero reached at their worst which is perhaps part of the problem. However stupid those two telenovelas could be, they were alive and would complement their forays into silliness with occasionally good drama and comedy. La Malquerida doesn't reach any lows or highs, it just is, without a pulse.

It is a lethargic and unfocused production with very choppy editing, and that was before Univision took additional scissors to the scenes. Important expositional beats are missing from the opening episodes which are too rushed as a result. The happy marriage between Cristina and her husband Alonso, the father and daughter bonds between Alonso and Acacia, the role of ranch hand Esteban on the hacienda and how he interacts with Alonso, Cristina and Acacia, the death of Alonso, the working relationship between Cristina and Esteban to save the hacienda, the romance that grows between Cristina and Esteban, and Acacia’s conflicted emotions regarding that relationship needed at least two weeks to explore fully. Instead, they are given two episodes. Without that foundation into the characters, everything that follows seems half-baked.

The respected source material of this telenovela, the 1913 play from Nobel Prize winner Jacinto Benavente, seems to have handicapped the production. It is genteel and respectable when it should be sweaty and lurid. Dare I say, this material would work better with an arch vulgarian like Salvador Mejía pulling the strings.

Another big problem is there is very little chemistry amongst the cast – really only Victoria Ruffo and Ariadne Díaz as mother/daughter work well together on screen. The problem is aggravated by the lack of continuity in the characters’ relationships. Ariadne Díaz and África Zavala have a nice scene together in an early episode, but they are subsequently shuffled off into separate isolated story bubbles, so far, rarely to interact with each other again.

Univision’s editing no doubt hurts in the building of the screen relationships. After a low-rated premiere week, Univision started chopping down episodes, not as egregiously as their editing of Por Siempre Mi Amor, but it tends to be the character moments that are first to hit the cutting room floor.

La Malquerida censored scene.
La Malquerida also had a key scene – an end of episode cliffhanger, no less - robbed of its meaning due to Univision's ludicrous censorship of sensual content. On Univision, the episode ended with Esteban riding to a river, stopping, and a reaction shot close up of him looking gob smacked. Missing from Univision’s broadcast were a pair of implied nude shots of Acacia, filmed tastefully from behind with strategically placed plants concealing her bum.

You would think this was a new low for Univision in their unnecessary censorship. That is until you watch an episode of Hasta El Fin Del Mundo and see Univision blurring out nudity from what looks like a Rococo era painting. Grow up, Univision!


Favorite telenovela: Manual Para Ser Feliz

Favorite performer: Ricardo Leguízamo in Manual Para Ser Feliz.

Favorite scene: from Manual Para Ser Feliz, an unlikely espionage thriller suddenly emerged for a day as the nebbish protagonist Juan (Ricardo Leguízamo) and his cohorts (Biassini Segura, Margalida Castro) sought to outfox a thief and retrieve a stolen manuscript. The reveal of Juan in his disguise – false mustache, hairpiece, glasses with spy camera, and earpiece to hear the base – was one of funniest scenes in the whole telenovela.


Favorite telenovela: Hasta El Fin Del Mundo

Favorite performer: Marcela Mar in Manual Para Ser Feliz was given some meaty material and she handled it with aplomb as her character sussed out her fiancé was up to no good and with intelligence and resourcefulness too rare in telenovela protagonists, sought to trap him in a crime, engaged in comedic conspiracies with her cousin played by Constanza Camelo, and had her heart broken when she discovered how her mother betrayed her.

Favorite scene: from Hasta El Fin Del Mundo, Sofía (Marjorie de Sousa) consoling majordomo Fausto (Alejandro Tommasi) that he is like a father to the youngest sister, Daniela (Jade Fraser) and the subsequent sister bonding scene between Sofía and Daniela.

R.G. Morin writes a regular column for We Love Soaps, "Telenovela Watch: A weekly look at the world of telenovelas for non-Spanish speakers." For feedback or questions, you can email R.G. Morin at [email protected].

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