"Spanglish" Aims for Cultural Clash with Heartwarming Tale
- Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
- 2004 12 Dec
Release Date: December 17, 2004
Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and brief language)
Run Time: 2 hrs. 11 min.
Director: James L. Brooks
Actors: Adam Sandler, Paz Vega, Téa Leoni, Cloris Leachman, Sarah Steele, Shelbie Bruce, Ian Hyland, Aimee Garcia
Would you hire a drop-dead gorgeous maid who doesn’t speak a word of English, if you couldn’t even remember one or two words in Spanish and your marriage was in trouble? Well, I wouldn’t, but then again, I don’t live in Beverly Hills. Ay, caramba!
Several years after Flor (Paz Vega) and her daughter Christina (Shelbie Bruce) sneak into the U.S. from Mexico, Flor lands a housekeeping job with the Claskey family in Beverly Hills. That she doesn’t speak a word of English is not a problem, Deborah Claskey (Téa Leoni) insists to her husband, John (Adam Sandler), because “all she has to do is dial 911 and press 2 for Spanish.” So begins this cross-cultural adventure told largely through the eyes of Flor, as she comes smack against not only Anglo culture, but the mindset of one very dysfunctional family.
John is a renowned chef and owner of an up-and-coming restaurant, which affords his family luxuries like a huge house with pool, expensive cars, private schools and summers in Malibu. John’s an unbelievably nice guy that everyone loves and appreciates, except Deborah. Addicted to exercise and fits of neurosis, she has left the workforce to become a fulltime mother. “Gulp!” Deborah says about this, to which her teenage daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele) echoes, “Double gulp!” Deborah’s mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), a former jazz singer and alcoholic, lives with the family and makes very astute observations, despite her inebriation. Flor vows to not get personally involved with the family, but after Deborah humiliates Bernice by buying clothes that are too small, in yet another failed attempt to coax her into losing weight, Flor secretly alters the clothes and presents them to the teen. The competition has begun.
The family heads to a rented Malibu home for the summer, and Deborah, who is too busy having an affair to notice the heated looks between her husband and gorgeous housekeeper, invites Flor and Christina to stay with them for the summer. Having successfully ignored her own children for years (including her almost invisible son), Deborah latches onto Christina and tries to turn her into a pint-sized version of herself. This lights a fire under Flor, who may not speak English, but who is no estupido. Then, of course, there’s the little matter of how frequently Deborah has left Flor and John together, to work out their problems, on the beach, in the Malibu moonlight, while everyone else is sleeping.
James L. Brooks (“Terms of Endearment,” “Broadcast News”) hasn’t had a huge hit since his 1997 “As Good As It Gets,” so he’s aiming for the outfield with this film, which has interesting characters and very droll dialogue, something Brooks excels at. “Wow,” says the clueless Deborah to Flor, about her beauty. “You could make a fortune in surrogate pregnancy!” Later, John says, “I don’t know if you know guilt, but…” to which Christina replies, “We know. We’re Catholics.” Perhaps the most insightful of his lines – and no doubt the lynchpin of this film – is when Deborah’s mother says to Flor, “I lived my life for myself. You live your life for your daughter. None of it works.”
His two main characters could be better. Clearly, Brooks wants to show us that Sandler is more than a sitcom comic, and to a certain extent, it works. I actually spotted a few endearing qualities, and very good acting at times, although Sandler is the most uneven performer in the cast. When John interacts with Bernice, he hits perfect notes. But when he learns of his wife’s affair, he seems lost. To be fair, Sandler is hampered by a very one-dimensional character – the perpetual Mr. Nice Guy – despite Flor’s witty observation that “he seemed to have the emotions of a Mexican woman.”
Also, I buy Deborah’s dysfunction, but I don’t see any resolution. “You were an alcoholic and a wildly promiscuous woman during my formative years,” she says to her mother. “I’m in this fix because of you!” to which the prosaic Evelyn replies, “You have a solid point, dear. And now those lessons are coming in handy for you, aren’t they?” Unfortunately, it does not appear that they do. Deborah comes to a reckoning and breaks up with her lover, but that choice appears to be more out of selfishness (her defining trait) than true repentance. And again, it is John’s near perfection that saves the day. One can’t help but wonder how much Brooks was influenced by his recent divorce.
His other characters, however, are insightfully drawn. Newcomer (to the U.S.) Vega is pitch-perfect in every way, and her beauty is highlighted by close-ups and flattering key lights. As a dirt-poor, super-fit, non-English-speaking, Mexican maid who wears the same sweater as wealthy Deborah, she is totally improbable, but just as likeable. So we play along, because Vega is so good. This film is hers, 100 percent, and she deserves every ounce of celebrity that is hurtling her way. On the other hand, it’s hard to ignore the stereotyping that Brooks engages in through Flor, who interacts and socializes with the Clansksys like a family member and does hardly any work. It’s a happy-clappy portrait that feels just like what it is – a nice story, written by a multi-millionaire, who hasn’t the first clue about what it really means to be an illegal immigrant that cleans toilets for a living in Beverly Hills.
Shelbie Bruce does a fantastic turn as Flor’s daughter Christina. When she translates both sides of an argument between her mother and John, perfectly mimicking each of their tones and gestures, she not only shines but gives the film its best moment. The other newcomer, Sarah Steele, does an equally impressive job as the big-hearted teen who struggles far more with her mother’s conditional love than she ever does with her weight. And, as the alcoholic mother who has learned from her own mistakes, Leachman gives yet another stand-out performance that should garner her an Oscar nod.
Despite its flaws, “Spanglish” nevertheless sends an important message about marriage. What the film tells us is that despite seemingly insurmountable hurdles, we do not have to give in to adultery. It’s almost as if Brooks is trying to say that, even though Flor and John fall “in love,” their relationship would never work. For that to happen, they would have to destroy an entire family. And while that is done every day, all over America, there are few who would say that it works, or that anyone lives happily ever after.
Aiming for a cultural clash, as the title promises, Brooks instead gives us a heartwarming tale – his specialty – with an important message. Muy bien.
AUDIENCE: Adults only
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Average–Heavy. Wine and beer drinking in several scenes throughout film; one alcoholic character who drinks throughout film, then announces that she has been sober for two weeks; another character regularly drinks beer and gets drunk once.
- Language/Profanity: Average. About a dozen obscenities (including one f---) and half a dozen profanities (mostly “Jesus!”).
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Average. Married couple embrace and begin to strip off clothes to make love, then have clothed sex, after which one has orgasm atop spouse; characters are tempted by adultery and kiss, but do not go further.
- Violence: Mild. Drunk character falls down; characters argue.