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SPANGLISH (PG-13) (2004)

Columbia Pictures

Official Site

Director: James L. Brooks

Producers: James L. Brooks, Richard Sakai, Julie Ansell

Written by: James L. Brooks

Cast: Adam Sandler, Paz Vega, Téa Leoni, Cloris Leachman, Shelbie Bruce, Sarah Steele, Angela Goethals


There is a special circle of hell reserved for movies as well-meaning as Spanglish. Like writer-director-producer James L. Brooks’s earlier films, As Good As It Gets or Terms Of Endearment, this one tries very, very hard to be both breezy and profound, to tackle substantive issues without preaching and provide a few laughs while doing it. To judge by Brooks’s oeuvre, this ambitious combination is much harder to pull off than it is to conceive, and the result is another movie that is as hard to dislike as it is to really enjoy.

Spanglish is really two different stories that just happen to take place in the same house and involve some of the same characters. The first involves Mexican immigrant Flor (Vega), who speaks only Spanish, and her preteen daughter Cristina (Bruce), a bilingual overachiever. When Flor takes a job as a housekeeper (or nanny—it’s not really clear what she does there) at the home of the very wealthy Clasky family, she worries at her daughter’s growing infatuation with the trappings of the upscale gringo lifestyle.

The other story involves those same Claskys: doting father and husband John (Sandler); shrewish, petty, and insecure wife Deborah (Leoni); her acerbic and alcoholic mother (Leachman), once a famous jazz singer; sensitive daughter Bernice (Steele), who feels threatened by her mother’s interest in the slimmer, smarter Cristina; and a younger son who is almost never seen or mentioned.

People expecting an “Adam Sandler movie” are likely to be disappointed. His performance here is reminiscent of neither a Happy Gilmore-style goofball nor the head-turning revelation of Punch-Drunk Love. Instead, he is an amiable father of the sort likely to be played these days by Steve Martin or Jim Carrey. Though Sandler certainly has his share of screen time, the film belongs to Vega, who is in almost every scene and does not begin speaking English until the movie is two-thirds underway. Under such conditions, her performance is workmanlike, but the truly interesting performances are from the two girls, Bruce and Steele, who prove that children do not have to ruin every film they are in, and from Goethals, whose very small part as a worker in John’s restaurant allows her to steal two scenes from Adam Sandler.

Téa Leoni, however, deserves some sort of an award for taking on such a thankless role. Her Deborah is a 24-carat bitch, inscrutable and unforgivable, and the tension she inflicts on her family occasionally leaks out into the theater. But without her, nothing would happen in this movie: It is she who initially hires Flor, torments daughter Bernice over her weight, insists that Cristina come to live in the family’s house, and undermines Flor’s maternal authority by taking the Mexican girl under her wing. Because of this succession of events, Spanglish does lead up to a pair of decisions, one of which even defies Hollywood conventions in a small way, but the film does not feature much of a plot.

Instead, Spanglish centers itself around two themes: the Mexican family’s attempt to remain who they are while becoming American, and the white one’s coming to terms with the emotional wounds that the unhappy Deborah consistently inflicts on the rest of her impossibly sweet family. Spanglish, though, has little to say about either of these matters. Though occasionally moving, it is certainly not weighty. In a similar way, it is charming but seldom funny. One can do better than Spanglish, but can also do much, much worse.

—Mike O’Connor

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