James L. Brooks has been a one-man fountain of entertainment. In addition to creating such well-regarded TV programs as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi,” he was instrumental in bringing “The Simpsons” to the airwaves. Brooks also helped launch the careers of Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson. At the movies, he wrote and directed such Oscar bait as Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets. (Brooks also made the ill-fated I’ll Do Anything, but even that was a noble failure.) His newest film, Spanglish is not as good as his best works, but it is still a solid effort from a man with a gift for creating realistic characters and situations.
Adam Sandler plays John Clasky, a renowned chef trying to deal with the stresses of running a fine restaurant. He lives with his wife Deborah (Tea Leoni) and their two children. Although they might look like a happy family from the outside, there is a lot of tension among them. Deborah seems to generate most of it with her mood swings and obsessive need for control. (The words “bipolar disorder” are never spoken but that’s sure what it looks like to me.) John sits helplessly as his wife performs backhanded acts of kindness. For instance, she buys their chunky daughter nice clothes that are a size too small in the hopes of “motivating” her into losing weight. If Deborah is often stark raving mad, John is the opposite. He needs to speak up and stop allowing himself to be steamrolled. His wife is not above pointing this out to him; she gets mad because he won’t fight with her.
The changing family dynamics necessitate the hiring of a new housekeeper. The woman they hire is Flor Moreno (Paz Vega), who speaks no English and must have everything interpreted through her young daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce). She instantly notices the tension in the home and tries to stay out of it; however, this becomes harder after the family decides to spend the summer at the beach, meaning that Flor and Cristina will have to live with them. Before long, Deborah begins taking Christina under her wing, arranging shopping trips, beauty salon appointments, and interviews with prestigious schools. Meanwhile, her own daughter is all but ignored, confused as to why her mother wants to pal around with somebody else’s kid. Flor feels that her employer is trying to influence Cristina – impressing her with money and connections that are desirous but would otherwise be unattainable for them. Eventually all the issues at hand collide with each other, creating some real tense moments for everyone.
Spanglish is a film about people who cannot communicate with each other. John can’t communicate with Deborah, who can’t communicate with anyone. Flor tries to communicate her values to Cristina but gets drowned out by the show-offishness of Deborah. She seems to have a lot in common with John and thinks she might be able to communicate with him if could learn English. After self-teaching herself, Flor does, in fact, make a connection with John. This sets off a chain reaction of events. Ultimately – and ironically - it is easier for John and Flor to break the language barrier than it is for he and Deborah to break the emotional barrier.
This is not the kind of role you’d expect to see Adam Sandler in, but he does a very good job with it. As his career has gone on, Sandler has shown a willingness to get away from the incessant obnoxiousness that marked his earliest screen performances. He’s even willing to take chances, as his did with Punch-Drunk Love and which he does again here. He works well with Tea Leoni, who gives what is destined to be one of the more misunderstood performances of recent years. It is nearly impossible to like Deborah. She is destructively cruel. She thinks of no one but herself and blames anyone who fails to do likewise. Make no mistake – Leoni is superb in the role. Probably a lot of actors would shy away from playing such an unsympathetic character, but Leoni does not seem daunted by the task.
Sandler and Leoni are more well-known names, but this is Paz Vega’s movie all the way. Despite being narrated by her daughter, the film clearly looks at things from Flor’s point of view. Vega – who also appeared in Pedro Almadovar’s Talk to Her - truly carries the movie. This is a rich performance that could generate some serious Oscar buzz.
With so many people failing to communicate effectively, Spanglish occasionally seems awkward and hesitant for the audience. This is particularly true during an extended scene in the final half-hour, where John and Flor attempt to bare their souls to one another. We hear lots of words coming out of their mouths, but there doesn’t seem to be a context. It’s as though the two of them are trying to say things for which there are no words. This kind of feeling is possible to establish, but you have to use quiet looks and subtle body language. (Think how much Bob and Charlotte said to each other in Lost in Translation without really speaking.) When you try to have characters fully explain their confusion through dialogue, it runs the risk of sounding stilted.
At two hours and ten minutes, I also think Spanglish is too long by about half an hour. At some point, it feels like the story should be wrapping up but instead it keeps going. Those flaws are noticeable but not deadly. James L. Brooks has such a gift for creating 3-dimensional characters and putting them in situations that have a lot of depth. Interpersonal relations can often be sticky; not many filmmakers understand that the way Brooks does. Spanglish, even in its flaws, is fascinating to watch. You really hope that these people will somehow find their voices and start talking to each other in a real way.
( out of four)
Spanglish is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and brief language. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.
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