Spanglish is writer/director James L. Brooks' examination of the culture clash that arises in a modern world where people of different ethnic backgrounds can no longer carry on as anonymous entities burrowed on their own side of the tracks. Brooks follows his 1997 release of As Good as It Gets with this comparably multi-layered and equally sensitive character examination. He presents a little slice-of-reality here, using his unique brand of jaunty dialogue and stinging candor that we've come to expect from his films -- where every one-liner is a real zinger and where every disdainful human trait is exposed like a raw nerve.
In Spanglish, we meet high-strung Deborah (Tea Leoni), who was recently laid off from her distinguished Beverly Hills managerial position and now forced to manage her family's household. Once a confident mover-and-shaker in the corporate world, Deb is such a neurotically unstable mess, she can go from a moment of sheer self-orgasmic delight to one of deep depression before you can say "temperamental." In a word, she's pitiful. Leoni's Deb emerges as the least appealing of the film's characters. She narrowly misses estranging the audience with her over-the-top repugnancies and flighty mannerisms, but Leoni saves it with her multi-faceted performance. She seamlessly opposes Deb's fits of childishness with an occasional display of true warmth and dependence.
The lone male figure of the story is Deb's husband John, played by Adam Sandler, owner and chef of an upscale bistro in L.A. As if contending with Deb's imperfections isn't stressful enough, it's rumored that his restaurant is scheduled for review in the near future by one of the nation's harshest, yet most influential restaurant critics. Besides being the sole remaining breadwinner of the family, John is a much-needed calming influence in the middle of Deb's raging storm. As her insanity escalates to near absurdity, there's always John to bring the tempo down to a reasonable level.
Rounding out the Clasky family is pudgy daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele) who struggles with her mother's brassy intervention. At first excited about some new clothes bought by her mother, Bernice later crumbles into a babbling heap when she realizes that none of them fit. Her mother purposefully bought them one size too small, hoping it might encourage Bernice to shed a few pounds. Sarah Steele handles her character perfectly, almost stealing every scene she's in. Keep an eye on this kid. She has that "something" that should lead to a bright future.
Enter into the Clasky household, Flor (Paz Vega) a beautiful Mexican immigrant hired to be the family's housekeeper. (Why this household would need a maid is beyond me, what with a non-working housewife and a tag-along mother-in-law and all…but who am I to judge?) Flor speaks almost no English (Vega actually learned to speak English on the set), so the two sides are forced to communicate via hand signals and head nods and by deploying that trusty old linguistic tool known as "Spanglish." It's a curious blend of English and Spanish that's usually executed by adding an "o" to the end of any English word and/or giving a white-man attempt at rolling your 'R's. It usually never really accomplishes anything in bridging the communication gap, but in the case of this movie it cleverly doubles as a metaphor for the idea of two merging cultures.
Flor's daughter, pre-teen Christina (Shelbie Bruce), speaks fluent English and Spanish, so logically she becomes the film's pivotal character. Caught between two vastly differing backgrounds, Christina must not only act as translator, but she also finds herself becoming a goodwill ambassador of sorts. She hopes to somehow connect both ends of the social spectrum. And that's a big, grown-up chore for such a young girl.
Despite the big-name billings and career acting performances by all, Brooks manages to keep the focus of the story on his material, thereby avoiding the allure of the "star factor." He clearly has the maturity and experience not to kowtow to the pressure of thinking he should make another "Adam Sandler" movie. Don't get me wrong though. Sandler was perfectly cast here. Maybe we're getting a chance to see that his performance in Punch-Drunk Love wasn't a sham after all. And maybe we're seeing what Brooks knows about Sandler - that he's a funny comedian, a sincere human being and just an all-around nice guy. It's important to the story that Deb's attraction to John comes from who he is rather than what he looks like. John's good-guy demeanor and average looks play nicely against Deb's shallow selfishness. And credit Brooks for knowing to mold his characters around the story, rather than vice versa.
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated "PG-13" for some sexual content and brief language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.)