out of Five
Running time: 129
James L. Brooks's character-based drama features strong performances and some great individual scenes but ultimately can't quite pull everything together into a satisfying whole.
Given the list of writer-director James L. Brooks's previous successes (a list that includes Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets, not to mention his sitcom work with Taxi and The Simpsons), it's perhaps not surprising that expectations for Spanglish were high, as his films tend to be intelligent, Oscar-baiting crowd-pleasers.
Failure To Communicate And Resulting Compromises
However, as any Oscar-fan worth his salt will no doubt be aware by now, Spanglish failed to pick up any nominations and was poorly received by both critics and audiences. It deserves to do slightly better than that over here, because while it's by no means a classic, it still has a lot to recommend it, even if it doesn't quite push all the right buttons.
Spanish actress Paz Vega (Sex and Lucia, Talk To Her) makes her English language debut as Flor, a Latino single mother who uproots her 12 year old daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) from the barrio and takes a job as house-keeper to successful LA chef John Clasky (Adam Sandler) and his ultra-neurotic wife Deborah (Tea Leoni), despite the fact that she doesn't know a word of English. Frustrated at Deborah's increasing influence over her daughter, Flor seeks solace in a burgeoning friendship with John.
As its title suggests, Spanglish is a film about the failure to communicate and the various compromises that emerge as a result - as such, it practically begs you to draw comparisons between the language barrier that separates Flor and the Claskys and the gaping holes in the mother-daughter, husband-wife relationships. In fact, given the film's rather clumsy narrative device (it's narrated by a 17 year old Cristina as part of an essay she's written for her college application), it's a minor miracle that no-one explicitly makes that connection onscreen.
Sandler is excellent, delivering a heartfelt performance that is easily on a par with his work in Punch Drunk Love. Vega is also terrific - she learned both English and the Mexican Spanish accent for the role and you simply can't take your eyes off her. There's also strong support from the kids (Shelbie Bruce and Sarah Steele, who plays Bernice, John and Deborah's daughter) and a scene-stealing performance from Cloris Leachman as Deborah's alcoholic, showtune-singing mother.
Tea Leoni's performance, however, is more problematic. On the one hand, it's a tour de force of neurotic, maniacal energy that is both hilarious and rather scary. However, on the other, Brooks refuses to make her even remotely sympathetic (she's the sort of mother who buys clothes for her sweet overweight daughter that are a size too small). As a result, she's such a monster that we don't care what happens to her and end up rooting for John and Flor to get together instead, even though the film itself seems to be against the idea.
In fact, their eventual kissing scene is extremely badly handled, as if the film isn't sure which way to go - as a result, it completely squanders the effective chemistry between Sandler and Vega. In addition, the film has one of the worst endings in recent memory - it just sort of peters out and doesn't resolve anything.
That said, there's still a lot to enjoy, including some utterly delightful scenes. In short, though Spanglish is unquestionably flawed and is at least 30 minutes too long, it's still worth seeing, thanks to its central performances and a handful of truly great scenes that make up for the film's shortcomings elsewhere.