Wednesday, December 22, 2004

"Spanglish": Some Thoughts

Some thoughts on "Spanglish" ...

James L. Brooks is no misanthrope. As evidenced by his handful of movies -- an impressive group that includes 1983's "Broadcast News," 1987's "Terms of Endearment" and 1997's "As Good As It Gets" -- he loves people, or at least those who populate his imagination. Like any bright student of humanity, Brooks has a keen eye for the recognizable quirks that connect us all: the "tells" of deep-seated insecurities and modest vanities, self-aggrandizing acts of kindness and careless emotional brutality. Perhaps because Brooks comes from a TV sitcom background ("Taxi," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the like) his big-screen films sometimes get dissed as visually unimaginative (fair criticism) and a little too pat for their own good (less fair), but that can also simply speak to economic storytelling. Brooks knows his characters and genuinely seems to like them. And he does it all without much fanfare.

"Spanglish," his latest effort, is uneven. A few subplots go unresolved in the movie's third act, which takes an unexpected detour to hone in on a single narrative thread. The movie is almost too ambitious, packing so much into its 2-hours-plus package -- the tribulations of parenting, marriage, insecurity, infidelity and the clash of Anglo and Latino cultures -- that some threads invariably go neglected.

"Spanglish" follows the story of Flor (the beautiful Paz Vega making her English-language movie debut), a single mother from Mexico who illegally crosses the border with her daughter, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), in search of a better life in Los Angeles. In L.A. she is hired to be a housekeeper/nanny to the wealthy Clasky family.

The Claskys are a mighty troubled couple. Husband John (Adam Sandler) is a mild-mannered master chef who increasingly finds himself at the psychological mercies of his grandly neurotic wife, Deborah (Tea Leoni). Flor and her daughter gradually are drawn into the Claskys' dyspeptic world of arguments and resentments, and tensions rise when the family -- with Flor and daughter in tow -- spend the summer at a Malibu beach house.

"You get me" is a phrase that the characters often say in "Spanglish," and with varying degrees of irony. Communication, for Brooks, is a wondrous and precarious phenomenon; making a connection with others has little to do with language. Flor doesn't learn English until more than halfway through the film, yet she connects with the long-suffering John in a way that Deborah cannot.

But the movie is about many things. The curious dynamics of mother-daughter relationships are fully explored. Deborah is unintentionally cruel to her overweight daughter, Bernice (newcomer Sarah Steele), while acting as a decidedly "cool" surrogate mom to Cristina. Similarly, Deborah is stymied by strained relations with her own alcoholic mother (the always terrific Cloris Leachman). Through it all, Flor faces the challenge of keeping Cristina from succumbing to L.A.'s suffocating materialism. The cast is uniformly good, but Sandler is particularly impressive for a surprisingly low-key and emotionally rich performance.

I am at a loss to understand some of the downright hostile reviews "Spanglish" has drawn, most of which slam Deborah's narcissistic, shrill character as pure misogyny (read A.O. Scott's review in The New York Times for a particularly scathing critique). I respectfully disagree. Deborah might be mad as a hatter, but she's not the monster that Brooks' critics seem to imagine. Certainly, she's too insecure to inspire that much audience hatred.

So ... let me defer to some folks whom I think, to borrow a "Spanglish" phrase, "get" the movie: critic George Lang (a fellow Okie) in his review for The Daily Oklahoman and Roger Ebert (not an Okie) in the Chicago Sun-Times.


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