Directed by James L. Brooks. Starring Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, Paz Vega, Cloris Leachman, Shelbie Bruce, Sarah Steele. (2004, PG-13, 131 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 17, 2004
Lamentably, if you come to Spanglish expecting something like Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills let it be known that director Paul Bartel already aced that movie a while back. And if you are looking for a comedy like Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Paul Mazursky, too, has already been there, done that. For an astute comic appreciation of the culture clashes among the Los Angeles minions, almost any movie would be better than this misguided effort from the usually dependable James L. Brooks. This time out, the acclaimed writer-director of As Good as It Gets, Broadcast News, and Terms of Endearment loses his way and can’t see the forest of L.A. through the individual trees of his characters – each of whom stops making sense early in the game. If Brooks had any insight into the strained relationship between the area’s privileged Anglo culture and its Spanish-speaking service class, it was lost long before his script ever found its way into the actors’ grip. Additionally, the film’s cryptic performances, mundane visual look, and minimal drama make the two-hour-plus running length of Spanglish seem positively brutal. The key to liking or disliking the movie lies with the viewer’s response to leading lady Deborah Clasky (Leoni), who is also another usually reliable comic actor. In Spanglish, Leoni exaggerates the extreme hysteria latent in Deborah instead of finding the character’s humorous extremism. Deborah is a buff, self-absorbed bundle of nerves, who is in her late 30s and has recently lost her job. Now, with no other outlet for her tension and identity crisis, Deborah keeps her borderline pathology all in the family. She does things like buy nice clothing in too-small sizes as an incentive for her chubby daughter (Steele) to lose weight and cares only about her own orgasm when she has afternoon sex with her husband to congratulate him on a special accomplishment. Sandler plays her husband John Clasky, a top chef who chooses to devote greater attention to his family than his career. John is a gentle, soft-spoken man, and there is nothing in the movie that can explain whatever attracted Deb and John to each other in the first place. They are so dissimilar and out of synch that their marriage can’t even be explained away with the old "opposites attract" chestnut. Into their household come housekeeper Flor (Vega, seen recently in Sex and Lucía) and her daughter Christina (Bruce). Flor is a proud single mother who moves to L.A. from Mexico City in order to better support her daughter – the love of her life. She insists on refusing to learn English and integrate into American life. We know from the outset that her mission has been less than successful since the story is narrated in the form of a Princeton college application essay by the now 17-year-old Christina (voice of Aimee Garcia). It hardly gets less Spanglishy than Princeton. We are to believe that despite their communication obstacles, John and Flor relate to each other because of their supreme dedication to the welfare of their children. But to my eyes their connection seems more based in that universal language of the body. It’s unclear what Brooks is trying to say about our melting-pot culture, if anything. So much attention is put into scapegoating Deb that it’s hard to belive that Brooks is the same man who coaxed award-winning performances from Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Holly Hunter, and Helen Hunt in previous films and is the producing godfather to feminist TV icons like Mary Richards, Rhoda, Tracey Ullman, and Marge Simpson. Spanglish is far cry from as good as it gets.