Throughout his accomplished career, writer-director James L. Brooks has taken exaggerated situations and characters and molded them into mature comedies with a steadily surprising measure of heart. He began in television as the creative force behind the signature 1970s sitcoms Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda and Taxi. In the '80s, he moved to the big screen and has since delivered three big awarding-winning hits in Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets. In sum, a film critic goes to a James L. Brooks film with high expectations for sophistication and artistry. That's why his current Spanglish, though not entirely a failure, is nonetheless so disappointing.
Spanglish is the story of the socioeconomic/cultural collision of two families in contemporary Los Angeles. Flor Moreno (luscious Paz Vega from Sex and Lucia) is a Mexican immigrant caring for her daughter Cristina (Shelby Bruce) while working at blue-collar jobs. She gets a significant pay increase when she becomes housekeeper and nanny for a wealthy Anglo family. Dad John Clasky (Adam Sandler) is a gifted chef with his own elite restaurant, and his neurotic wife, Deborah (Tea Leoni), has just lost a corporate job after a merger. Because Deborah is now a full-time homemaker and mother, this would seem the exact time the Claskys don't need a maid. But this is a picture that tells us Flor's husband abandoned her when everyone knows that any heterosexual man in North America would chain himself to Flor's leg rather than let her get away. Brooks has visited contrivance before, but never this clumsily.
Though Deborah just oozes political correctness (she demands Flor use her first name; she buys presents for Cristina), she's astonishingly thoughtless and relentlessly selfish. In short order, Flor is providing the Clasky household with the common sense, instinctive sensitivity and reflexive maternal love that it hasn't heretofore known. So it's no wonder that the Clasky children pretty soon prefer their nanny to their mother. And it's not long before John and Flor begin to gaze upon each other as the ideal mate that neither of them has ever enjoyed.
I will happily concede that Spanglish has its moments. Its ending is powerful enough to save the whole picture for some viewers. And it offers strong performances. Paz Vega is not only beautiful but very talented. She mostly speaks in untranslated Spanish here, yet we always know, not only what she is feeling, but the complicated and even contradictory ways she is feeling. Oscar winner Cloris Leachman (also a five-time Emmy winner, including for Brooks' MTM show) shows up to excellent advantage as Deborah's alcoholic mother, Evelyn. Brooks has written some hilarious lines for Evelyn and has invested the character with a lot more dimension that we first suspect. Young Miss Bruce gives a well-rounded performance and shines immensely in a sequence where Cristina has to translate her mother's sense of indignation about the way the Claskys have treated her. Sarah Steele proves equally capable as the Claskys' chubby teenage daughter Bernice. I haven't counted myself an Adam Sandler fan since he left Saturday Night Live to create his pantheon of moronic movie characters, but he's OK here, controlled and believable. And I'll even grant a certain credit to Leoni for the bravery and lack of vanity in her over-the-top performance. Her Deborah is just about as annoying a character as I've encountered at the movies in a while, but in creating Deborah, presumably in the image Brooks wanted, Leoni certainly holds nothing back
But in Deborah lies this picture's nigh fatal flaw. She is so insufferable we come to cringe almost every time she appears on screen. I presume Brooks designed her as an emblem of California excess, a self-absorbed fitness and control freak who would try the patience of a Saints season ticketholder. Brooks has dealt with irritating characters before. But Shirley MacLaine's Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment is saved by the genuine love she feels for her daughter and grandchildren, Holly Hunter's Jane Craig in Broadcast News by the knowledge that she's too smart and inflexible for her own good and Jack Nicholson's Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets by his recognition that he must change if he wants a chance with the woman he loves. Brooks endeavors to provide Deborah comparable redemption, but his efforts don't pay off. Circumstances she doesn't expect cause her to fear a loss she hasn't anticipated, and as a result, she changes course. But there's a significant difference between changing who you are and changing a specific pattern of behavior. Deborah attempts the latter without ever seeming to understand her fundamental need for the former. So in the end, the picture leaves us rooting against its own storyline. Conventional family morality demands that husband and wife work out their differences and stay together while we can't help but think that the best thing for all concerned would be for Dad to swap Mom for maid.
- Flor (Paz Vega) and John (Adam Sandler) enjoy a friendly culture clash in James L. Brooks' latest, Spanglish.