Spanglish Movie Review

In the world of James L. Brooks' Spanglish, the human act of communication is in a shambles. A deteriorating American family, presented with a pleasant sadness, moves through each day short on personal fulfillment and miles apart emotionally. The result is often uncomfortable and completely gratifying.

Adam Sandler and Téa Leoni, actors best known for their comic energy, build the foundation for this awkward clan using more dramatic skills than comedic. They are John and Deborah Clasky, married, parents of two, living high on the hog, but completely unhappy opposites. As their emotional distance lengthens, enter Flor (Paz Vega), the new family maid, an assured Mexican immigrant who speaks not one word of English. With Flor's presence, and that of her bilingual daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), the language gap widens. But will the communication gap ever close?

As Flor, the stunning, confident Paz Vega is the star of the film, just as Brooks' outstanding script demands. The entire story, told via a college admissions letter, flashes back to Flor's travels, toting Cristina from the homeland to LA, on to Flor's job with the rich white folks one pivotal summer, where both families live under one roof. Vega plays Flor as a wide-eyed newcomer, a bravely dedicated mother, a love-stung girl. It is a performance of various languages, linguistic and otherwise, and Vega nails it.

Flor's most solid connection is with John, Sandler's weak, emotionally unstable dad who fears his own success as much as his wife's frenetic outbursts. If you're looking for Billy Madison laughs, go rent it -- Sandler's soft-spoken, hangdog performance is far more "sad daddy" than Big Daddy. Leoni, as Deborah, comes from an appropriately opposite pole, wildly frazzled and wound tighter than a knot. Both actors wallow wonderfully in their discomfort, with Leoni boldly chewing the scenery or Sandler mumbling to himself. They inhabit their characters' unhappy shortcomings with such abandon that, by the middle of the film, we want to smack them both for being so frustrating.

The hub of this wheel is Brooks' incredible knack for entertaining conversation. In the finest screenplay of his five-film career, the writer/director designs dialogue just left-of-center, and the film is at its best when it stays there too. At times, just the dynamic of conversation is bigger than what's actually being said. One priceless example (available on the film's website!) pits Flor and John in a late-night argument, with Cristina providing a rat-a-tat translation for both. The scene is a shining moment for young actress Bruce, as she becomes the film's official conduit, smoothly spitting out Spanish and English while channeling the emotion of both adult characters.

Brooks establishes two moods here, right off the bat: the familiar pathos prevalent in his previous Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News; and a level of eccentricity that keeps the audience at edge (and offers the most bizarre humping scene since Faye Dunaway screamed ratings numbers in Network). When Brooks' storytelling stretches a little too long, it feels as if he's trying earnestly to give us our money's worth, building characters in the midst of a juggling act that includes three leads and three fantastic supporting performances (including Cloris Leachman, in a role initially planned for Anne Bancroft.)

Throughout Spanglish, Brooks has something to say about the art of belonging, whether it's within a loving family or the often painful American class structure. From Brooks' view, in this messed-up world of crossed wires and confusing roles, self-realization - actually knowing where you belong - is far more valuable than assimilation.

DVD extras include commentary track and deleted scenes -- enough to drag this movie into three hours long if you watch them all.

Here's a dirty joke.


Comments

Spanglish Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 2004

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