Film — Spanglish (PG-13)

Spanglish (PG-13)

by Amy Diaz

Adam Sandler looks for his inner Tom Hanks in Spanglish, a dramedy about family life and the zany things that Anglos do.

Remember the maturing of Jim Carrey? From a talking butt in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to a Jimmy Stewart ringer in The Majestic — Carrey still keeps his toe in face-twisting comedies but he clearly wants audiences to accept him as something more.

Sandler seems to be trying for the same type of wing-spreading. While Punch-Drunk Love did a dark, screwy riff on his man-boy character, Spanglish attempts to make Sandler into a complexities-having adult male. The result is uneven and occasionally awkward but as a reward for trying, Sandler gets most of the movie’s best lines and the privilege of being the least ridiculous white person in the movie.

Because, when Spanglish isn’t trying to make Sandler look like a grown-up, it’s giving us a sitcom-like view on his wacky Anglo family.

The movie is narrated by Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), the precocious daughter of Flor (Paz Vega). Flor comes to America seeking a new life and, after six years in the very-Mexico-like barrio of downtown Los Angeles, finally ventures out to the white-people world of upper-class mansions to work as a housekeeper. The job brings Flor more money and a chance to be home early for her daughter but it also requires her to put up with the neurotic Deborah Clasky (Tea Leoni), an out-of-work executive attempting to be a housewife. This task is made even more difficult by the fact that the non-English-speaking Flor can barely decode the desires of the non-Spanish-speaking Deborah. Most curious to Flor is the way Deborah clumsily attempts to parent her daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele). Though Deborah is an all-muscle runner, Bernice is a less-than-svelte teen who is struggling with both her weight and her grades at a posh private school.

Flor feels sorry for Bernice and is appalled by Deborah’s treatment of her. Enter John Clasky (Sandler), Deborah’s soft-hearted master-chef husband. He adores Bernice and quickly he comes to adore Flor — both for her kindness toward his daughter and for her general sanity.

The two families become even more intermingled — and John and Flor’s attraction to each other grows — when Deborah decides to take a house by the ocean. Too far for Flor to bus her way in, she and Cristina move in with the Claskys. Deborah is instantly taken with Cristina and attempts to make her over into the slim, overly-appreciative daughter she never had.

Spanglish is the first draft of several different very good movies. There is a nice drama about families and children and how two very child-oriented people — John and Flor — attempt to raise their kids. There is a story about an immigrant family that faces social and economic advancement, the price of which may be so much assimilation that a mother loses her daughter. There is a story of two mothers — the wealthy Deborah and the working-class Flor — and their reaction to setbacks and child-rearing difficulties. There is, almost apart from the rest of the movie, the story of John and his restaurant and chef career which is on the verge of massive changes after receiving four stars from a newspaper food critic. Any one of these movies would be interesting but the movie decides to go after all of them.

The result is a scattered story with characters given uneven amounts of development. In Flor we get a three-dimensional person with conflicts and emotions that seem to fit the situations. In John we get a nice guy who gains some layers toward the movie’s end but, for the first hour or so, just seems unnaturally saintly. In Cloris Leachman, playing Deborah’s boozy former-jazz star mom, we get a sense of wisdom and compassion but primarily we get someone to toss off the quips.

The worst character — in terms of both likeability and coherency — is Deborah. In the beginning of the movie, we get a mom who — after years devoted to career — is trying to learn how to be a wife and mother. By the end of the movie, we just want her to shut up. Her character must either be meant to devolve into startling cruelty or be inexpertly developed that what was supposed to be a conflict between selfish desires and better angels turned into one-dimensional naughtiness. Either way, the effect is jarring and doesn’t fit with the flow of the rest of the movie.

James L. Brooks, the writer/director at the helm of As Good As It Gets, loses his way with these characters and succumbs to the temptation to cram too much angst into every drop of drama. Even a standout performance by Vega and a promising performance by Sandler don’t keep us from thinking that, from this crew, we should have gotten better than this.

- Amy Diaz

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