Movie review: 'Spanglish'

EntertainmentMoviesFamilyAdam SandlerTea LeoniPaz Vega

2 stars (out of 4)

In the immortal words of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince: Parents just don't understand. Especially parents in James L. Brooks movies, who nurture by isolation (Helen Hunt's single mom in "As Good as It Gets") or deprecation (Shirley MacLaine's Aurora in "Terms of Endearment") and relate to their children in the same screwed up way they relate to the world.

In "Spanglish," writer-director Brooks again navigates the knotty parent-child-world relationship, this time with a fiercely protective immigrant mom who resists her daughter's (and her own) integration, and a wealthy West Coast couple whose faltering marriage and self-doubt wreak havoc on their teen daughter, a brace-faced kind soul on the road to being herself.

The exception is that instead of sticking to the emotional terrain he knows (let's hear it for the tried and true!), Brooks plops moms and dads and kids in the middle of a muddled message movie, losing his characters, his wit and, worst of all, his point. Tightly wound Deborah Clasky (Tea Leoni, in a career-wrecking performance) is a former professional woman with a debilitating case of the Southern-California-hate-myselfs. She derives a certain sick satisfaction from buying her size-10 daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele) size-8 clothes and blames her neuroses on live-in mom Evelyn, a former jazz singer and current drunk (in a classy performance by Brooks' "Mary Tyler Moore" vet Cloris Leachman). Deborah is married to and at odds with John (Adam Sandler, back for more dramady), a four-star chef in the model of French Laundry's Thomas Keller and a dad in the model of Cliff Huxtable, who prioritizes family over work and would rather Bernice be an oddity at her tony private school than a fit. Good guy.

Then there's Flor (pronounced Florrrrrrr and played by Spaniard Paz Vega), a nervy, devoted single mom whose concern for daughter Cristina's future pries her away from her native Mexico to L.A. There, after isolating herself in a purely Spanish-speaking neighborhood for six years, she goes to work for the Claskys, eventually moving into their Malibu summer home with Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) in tow.

Cristina acts as Flor's translator for much of the film (Brooks eschews subtitles--a nice touch) and as a conflicted guinea pig--both attached to her grounded mother and enamored with Deborah's fair-skinned life. See, Spanglish is not just shorthand for the Spanish-English hybrid spoken by many Hispanic-Americans, but also a verbal symbol for the assimilation (or resistance thereto) that is central to Brooks' work.

So set against the Claskys' parental predicament is the maid's--the drop-dead gorgeous Latina cleaning lady who is a stranger in her own land and at any moment could teach the Claskys a thing or two about goodness. (Brooks' line on his film, "decency is sexy," is a catchy way of saying, "poor Hispanic women are hot.")

For most of the film Flor distances herself from the Claskys, conscious that, though Bernice treats her like the fun aunt, no other relative gets affection in an envelope. This is Brooks' attempt at puncturing the comforting delusion that master and maid are one big happy family, and to a certain extent, I admire it.

But as Flor finds it increasingly difficult to shield Cristina from the culture and socioeconomic clash that is her life--she's a poor kid living like a rich kid, with Deborah as her sponsor--the film's empathy for Flor and lynching of Deborah goes into overdrive. Brooks lays on the one-sided, white man's sympathy but thick, and cinematographer John Seale ups the offense with lingering shots of a pedestaled Flor--hair up, hair down--abandoning writer's commentary for condescension.

Deborah, both as written and in Leoni's shrill, hyperactive, blood-vessel-popping performance, is Flor's foil, a deeply inhumane specimen--horrible woman, horrible wife, horrible mother--whose passing self-awareness only makes her less likable. (As omniscient Evelyn says: "Lately, your low self-esteem is just good common sense.") The simplified contrast--soft, curvy patron saint of Mexican maids versus angular, skin-and-bones harpy--is no contest: The maid wins every time. Just like real life.

But what about Adam Sandler, the kids cry? Though he embraces his character's contradictions--John stands for so much but can't stand up for anything--too often, perhaps egged on by Leoni's hysteria or Brooks' newfound affection for overacting, Sandler goes into "Happy Gilmore" mode, emoting his marital woes via comic temper tantrum, with an on-off switch hidden somewhere in his ever expanding Afro.

For more than two hours and without satisfaction, Brooks debates the virtue of acculturation, attempts to say something about modern-day serfdom and condemns hard-edged, starving American women. But "Spanglish" only resonates when he strips it all away and focuses on parent and child. The way Bernice comforts John and Evelyn tortures Deborah says it all: Brooks understands this best.

"Spanglish"

Written and directed by James L. Brooks; photographed by John Seale; edited by Richard Marks; production designed by Ida Random; music by Hans Zimmer; produced by Brooks, Richard Sakai and Julie Ansell. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:13. MPAA rating: PG-13 (some sexual content and brief language).

John Clasky - Adam Sandler
Deborah Clasky - Tea Leoni
Flor - Paz Vega
Evelyn - Cloris Leachman
Bernice - Sarah Steele
Cristina - Shelbie Bruce

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