Spanglish Movie Review
The fact that "Spanglish" is narrated through the contrivance of a college application letter is typical of the calculating, false tone of writer-director James L. Brooks' latest Oscar-baiting human-condition dramedy.
This letter, written by a teenager girl (Shelbie Bruce) who tells the story of her immigrant mother's honor and determination, is all too carefully measured with pangs of empathy, familiarity and humor -- which may make for a well-written essay but feels manipulative and wholly deliberate on film.
Beginning with a flashback set in Mexico, the girl's mom sneaks the two of them across the border and becomes a rift-healing, down-to-earth, "no hablo inglés" Mary Poppins maid for a harried yuppie family in upscale Brentwood.
Beautiful, indomitable Flor Moreno (Spanish actress Paz Vega, making her Hollywood debut) is never shown working, save one brief shot picking up a newspaper from a coffee table. Instead she exists primarily as a catalyst for Brooks's examination of the challenges of marriage and parenthood.
Vega strikes a wonderful balance in the role as an intelligent, passionate, tenacious single mother who struggles to fit into a foreign culture but refuses to relinquish any of her dignity or fortitude. She is in no way a punchline or an illegal-immigrant cliché. But even when its characters ring true, most of the movie feels conspicuously make-believe, from its soundstage beachfronts to its idealized, even-headed children.
The family she works for is supervised by a neurotic, insecure, Type-A mom played by Tea Leoni, whose performance is a touch too comically shrill ("You know how many books I've read on parenting?!?") until she finds strong footing in the third act's emotional conflicts. In one of the movie's many compartmentalized episodes, she buys an outfit that's a size too small for her slightly chubby -- but otherwise absurdly perfect -- teenage daughter (Sarah Steele), hoping the girl will diet down to fit into it. Flor then mends the girl's self-esteem and earns her adoration by letting out seams and moving buttons.
Leoni's husband is a loving but irresolute dad (a nicely understated Adam Sandler) and the stressed-out owner-chef of a quiet little restaurant he fears will lose its modest ambiance after a four-star review in the L.A. Times. He is, of course, drawn to Flor's self-confidence and beauty in a timid, slow-burn fashion, and their mutual attraction (which is never explained or justified on her part) works some kind of restorative kismet on his devotion to his wife after other issues of trust have sent their marriage into a freefall.
The one element of "Spanglish" that does feel authentic is the indignation Flor feels when Leoni takes an excessive interest in her daughter, our narrator. The girl is soon given expensive gifts and put up for a low-income scholarship to the tony private school where Leoni and Sandler send their own kids -- all without regard to Flor's parental prerogative.
As these conflicts evolve, Brooks eventually finds the film's stride, stirring up the kind of emotional veracity he brought to "As Good As It Gets," which was equally specious but more heartfelt. But just like Leoni's perceptive, comic-relief lush of a live-in grandma (a spot-on performance by Cloris Leachman) who always knows exactly the right thing to say, every moment in "Spanglish" feels preordained, as if the characters themselves had read the script.