A problematic attempt at contempo social comedy from an insular point of view, “Spanglish” feels several drafts away from a lucid piece of storytelling. At its core a sympathetic look at a young Mexican mother in Los Angeles desperate not to lose her daughter to the temptations of a rich and flashy culture, James L. Brooks’ first film in seven years is short on real drama and incident and long on tedium thanks to one irredeemably neurotic central character. It’s never wise to underestimate the drawing power of Brooks and star Adam Sandler, here in his most straightforward screen performance, and mainstream auds probably won’t mind Brooks’ bright and bland TV-style direction. But critical and public reactions will be mixed, with B.O. likely to be good, if not as good as it gets.
It’s difficult to engage with a picture when a major character is so out of control emotionally as to require immediate institutionalization, even if no one in — or behind — the film seems to notice. So it is with Deborah Clasky (Tea Leoni), a Bel-Air matron whose complete self-absorption has obliterated any personality and interests she once might have had. A clenched fist of knotted nerves tightened by constant workouts, Deborah can’t relate to anyone on a human level, only in a manner she imagines is appropriate or prescribed.
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It is into her lushly appointed but emotionally frayed manse that lovely Flor (Paz Vega) comes to work. Having toiled for a pittance but at the same time having provided a safe and nurturing home for her daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce, very good) since moving north of the border, single mom Flor now intends to earn more — and hits the jackpot with Deborah, who unwittingly agrees to overpay her extravagantly.
On the other hand, little does Flor know she’ll earn every penny putting up with Deborah, whose every well-meaning gesture and comment comes off as hysterical and ill judged.
Tale is related by Cristina in the form of a Princeton college application essay, which offers the reassurance that things worked out pretty well for this daughter of an illegal immigrant. With mature observational skills, the teen recounts the twists and turns that created potential ruptures between her and her single mom, who displays a resilient combo of smarts and intuition.
The connection between Flor and Cristina provides “Spanglish” with its only tangible emotion and sole recognizable theme, as everything surrounding it is ill conceived and sketchily worked out.
Overreacting just a tad to being newly jobless, Deborah flails and flops like a wild garden hose. She deliberately buys too-small clothes for her chubby daughter Bernice (an audience-friendly Sarah Steele) to get her to lose weight and, in a very bizarre impromptu sex scene, satisfies herself quickly with no regard to her husband John (Sandler), when she was supposed to be congratulating him for being anointed best chef in America.
Indeed, nothing about the Claskys’ marriage makes sense. While Deborah is impossibly needy and demanding, John is a laid-back guy who likes to hang out with the kids (there’s also a young son who’s rarely seen) and seems undermotivated to pass as a high-powered star chef of a hot new upscale restaurant (his ambivalence in the face of a four-star review is genuinely amusing). Brooks would have done well to provide a smidgen of backstory about the connection between husband and wife, since at this point none exists.
Far too obvious motivation for Deborah’s craziness is provided by the live-in presence of her mother Evelyn (Cloris Leachman in enjoyably grande damish Elaine Stritch mode), an alcoholic former jazz singer whose own promiscuity and irresponsibility has, in a schematic formulation, caused her daughter to go into maternal overdrive.
Having staunchly resisted assimilation for several years by living among other Mexicans, and refusing to learn a word of English, Flor maintains her distance from the Anglos’ shenanigans until she and the now-12-year-old Cristina are obliged to move in with them for the summer in Malibu. Cristina, who speaks perfect English, takes like a duck to the watery luxury and becomes tight with Bernice.
Assuming for the umpteenth time that she knows better than Flor what Flor wants, Deborah gets Cristina a scholarship at a $20,000-a-year private girls’ school, which throws Flor into a crisis of indecision about her daughter’s destiny; pic’s central thesis spins on the notion that, if Flor allows Cristina to enter the world of Anglo privilege, her daughter will become estranged.
As this predicament plays itself out, a bond begins to grow between the ignored John and Flor, made possible by Flor’s decision to take a crash course in English. Sandler, who hasn’t had all that much to do up to this point, is saddled with some curious dialogue in moments of encroaching intimacy, but handles his assignment affably enough, while Vega (“Sex and Lucia”) negotiates the hurdles of English with more charm and naturalness than has her glamorous Spanish predecessor in Hollywood, Penelope Cruz.
Nevertheless, their scenes as written and staged lack any tension or audience desire, however ambivalent, for them to get together, despite a convenient moral opening; as viewers will agree with the filmmakers that any physical relationship between husband and housekeeper would be wrong, there is hardly any energy or rooting interest charging these key scenes of their developing rapport. Ending does have a nicely rounded feel that will send audiences out in a good mood.
Although it attempts to adopt the perspective of outsiders to American society, “Spanglish” actually feels like the work of someone trying to escape the Bel-Air bubble in an academic way but remaining trapped within it all the same; except for brief moments early on devoted to Flor and Cristina’s arrival, the action never leaves the Brentwood/Bel-Air/Malibu axis of exclusivity, and neither does the mindset.
Stylistically, pic is devoid of interest, as its almost random selection of unimaginatively composed and generally lit shots startlingly resembles the results of multiple-camera television.
In stark contrast to Sandler’s unassuming ease, Leoni acts up a storm, and in the process exacerbates Deborah’s irksome abrasiveness. Normally funny and appealing, Leoni is willing to be vastly unappealing here, both behaviorally and physically but, unfortunately for her, not in the service of illuminating a character written as worthy of examination.
Production values are adequate but unexceptional. For John’s restaurant, production designer Ida Random has recreated the look of the French Laundry, no doubt in homage to the film’s culinary consultant Thomas Keller, owner of the celebrated Napa foodie magnet. Industry insiders will note the presence of “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal as John’s second-in-command in the kitchen. Hans Zimmer’s score trades on Astor Piazzolla-style Latin-flavored charm.