'Spanglish'

A comic drama about the way we live now, "Spanglish" is a film as contemporary as its title by a writer-director with a well-established gift for showing us who we are. It gives us ideas to chew on, moments to laugh at and performances to admire, but, like so many current lives, it is also somewhat in disarray, not always equal to its admirable intentions and the grace of its most successful aspects.

This is especially unfortunate because the writer-director is Jim Brooks, someone whose best films ("Terms of Endearment," "Broadcast News") are, to borrow the title of his last success, as good as it gets in terms of smartly written, deeply felt, inescapably idiosyncratic character comedy.

It's been seven years since that Jack Nicholson-Helen Hunt film, but one of the odd things about "Spanglish" is that it doesn't feel quite finished or completely worked out. Though it clocks in at two hours and 11 minutes, "Spanglish" has an abbreviated air, with key characters and situations likely intended for greater screen time than they got in the final cut.

Perhaps this is because "Spanglish," like all of Brooks' work, is exceptionally ambitious, trying to do too much, tell too many stories, take it all in. Some of its scenarios are brilliant, some do not involve us despite everyone's best intentions. The film's most admirable characters are its least interesting, its most difficult individual is its strongest point, and its most conventional aspect interests us least of all. As Brooks himself would be the first to say, go figure.

Yet "Spanglish's" strengths are considerable.

As he has since "Terms of Endearment," Brooks understands completely the complex dynamic between mothers and daughters. What gets added here to the difference in generations is the difference between cultures, a keen and empathetic sense of how difficult becoming an American is and how large the gap can be between the newly arrived and the already established.

No one is making major studio films about these topics, and even if other people were, no one would be doing it like this.

"Spanglish" starts with a standard college application essay, asking who the most influential person in your life is. "My mother, no contest," says Cristina, reading aloud off-screen from her essay, a key for the film to begin showing us exactly why.

Cristina's story starts in Mexico City, where her mother, Flor (Spanish star Paz Vega), gets left by Cristina's father when the girl is 6. With a better life for her daughter in mind, Flor illegally crosses the border and lives for six years totally within L.A.'s Latino community. Only when Cristina is 12 (played by an excellent Shelbie Bruce) does Flor, still not speaking the language, finally enter the "foreign land" of English-speaking Anglos when she is hired as a housekeeper for the Clasky family of affluent Bel-Air.

Vega, who debuted in the memorable "Sex and Lucia" and appeared in Almodóvar's "Talk to Her," completely embodies Flor. Initially unfamiliar with English (like her character), Vega nevertheless brings a lively and unmistakable warmth and charm to this caring woman who puts her relationship with her daughter ahead of everything else.

The family Flor goes to work for is a much more complicated business. Husband and father John (Adam Sandler) is a top chef who owns his own restaurant and thinks his family is the most important thing in his life. His good-hearted young daughter Bernice (a truly winning Sarah Steele) is battling a weight problem, and his son Georgie (Ian Hyland) is on screen so briefly he almost seems an afterthought.

Making "Spanglish's" most indelible impression is wife and mother Deborah, played by Téa Leoni in a gangbusters performance that is little less than heroic. For this is an immensely complicated character, endlessly exasperating but completely believable, a bundle of neuroses and nerves who wants desperately to do the right thing but is too self-absorbed and self-indulgent to be anything more than bossy and intrusive.

Egged on by her live-in mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman, ever reliable), a tart-tongued heavy drinker given to saying things like, "Lately your low self esteem is just good common sense," Deborah is easily "Spanglish's" most complex, most classically Jim Brooks character. It's to Leoni's credit that she so threw herself into this part that we see not just the wreckage she causes but the reasons she feels she can't be other than she is.

Compared to this exhausting tornado of disturbing emotions, housekeeper Flor comes off looking even more likable and level-headed than she ordinarily would as she and her daughter become increasingly involved in the psychodrama that passes for daily life in the Clasky household.

In fact, it is one of the difficulties of "Spanglish" that Flor is such an unerring source of all wisdom, someone who worries only about what really matters and understands what is important in life. Brooks and Vega combine to make this character as real as she can be, but thefilm has not found a way to make her as interesting as she is virtuous.

A similar problem exists for Sandler's John, a character who exists because, Brooks has said, "I wanted to do a movie about an American man who didn't have to learn that his kids are important and that he's being a jerk."

It's a terrible burden for an actor to be this much of a paragon, and Sandler, cast totally against type, gives a completely sincere performance. But while Vega is such a force you can't imagine anyone else doing any better with her part, Sandler is not enough in his comfort zone for the same to be said about him.

Frustrating though it can be, "Spanglish" still proves to be as resilient as its characters.

The rubbing together of cultural and generational rough edges sparks several exceptional scenes that are funny, poignant and unexpected, the kinds of scenes we go to the movies for.

"Spanglish" could use more of them, but the ones that exist are worth remembering and holding on to until the next Jim Brooks film comes around.

'Spanglish'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual content and brief language

Times guidelines: A comic orgasm scene

Adam Sandler...John Clasky

Téa Leoni...Deborah Clasky

Paz Vega...Flor

Cloris Leachman...Evelyn

Shelbie Bruce...Cristina

Sarah Steele...Bernice

Columbia Pictures presents a Gracie Films production, distributed through Sony Pictures Releasing. Writer-director James L. Brooks. Producers James L. Brooks, Richard Sakai, Julie Ansell. Executive producers Joan Bradshaw, Christy Haubegger. Director of photography John Seale. Editor Richard Marks. Costume designers Shay Cunliffe, Louise Mingenbach. Music Hans Zimmer. Production designer Ida Random. Art director Tom Reta. Set decorator Leslie Ann Pope. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.In general release.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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