Spanglish

Release date: Dec. 17 Distributor: Sony

Oscar alumni: James L. Brooks (adapted screenplay, director, producer, “Terms of Endearment”), Cloris Leachman (supporting actress, “The Last Picture Show”), John Seale (cinematography, “The English Patient”), Hans Zimmer (score, “The Lion King”)

It would be unwise to count out three-time Academy Award winner James L. Brooks, whose work has mixed the wry insight of Wilder with the heart-tugging warmth of Spielberg.

With only five directorial effort in 21 years, Brooks’ features are infrequent enough that a film like “Spanglish” is awash with expectations. Three of his films so far have been picture nominees — “Terms of Endearment,” “Broadcast News” and “As Good as It Gets” — and all of them had at least three acting noms each.

Brooks’ purview this time around is parenting, as explored when a beautiful Mexican housekeeper — newcomer Paz Vega with 12-year-old daughter in tow — is hired by a wealthy but neurotic Malibu couple (Adam Sandler and Tea Leoni) to look after their children. With no screenings of the film scheduled at press time, the main plot point known is that the couple’s marriage is faltering, and the maid helps family members turn their lives around.

Brooks, who notoriously tinkers with his movies until the 11th hour, is still in the editing process. But many — especially Sony — are counting on the kind of poignant humor and sophisticated look at disaffection and ambivalent emotions that have become his trademark.

In the past, Brooks has delivered first acting nominations for thesps such as Albert Brooks and Greg Kinnear, not to mention Oscar-winning perfs from Shirley MacLaine (“Terms”), Helen Hunt (“As Good as It Gets”) and Jack Nicholson (both “Terms” and “Good”). With Sandler continuing to challenge himself, and Leoni growing as a comedienne with dimension, Brooks could provide the push they need to join the big leagues.

But the real discovery here could be Vega, little known outside her native Spain, but who exhibited dramatic strength and sex appeal in “Sex and Lucia.” Cloris Leachman, an Oscar winner in 1972 for “Last Picture Show,” is being positioned as a supporting candidate for her turn as Leoni’s boozy mother.

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