Spanglish (2004) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual content and language
Running Time: 130 min.

Cast: Paz Vega, Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni, Cloris Leachman, Shelbie Bruce, Sarah Steele, Ian Hyland, Thomas Haden Church
Director: James L. Brooks
Screenplay: James L. Brooks
Review published January 6, 2005

Although Sandler (50 First Dates, Anger Management) is the big name attraction here, this is a James L. Brooks (As Good As It Gets, Broadcast News) film all of the way, so don’t expect any juvenile gags or lowbrow antics.  As with most of Brooks’ previous efforts, the characters and their interactions with one another, alternating between funny and sad, drive the film through the highs and lows until everyone can come to a better understanding of one another.  They have their differences, petty squabbles, and moments of shared interest, as we see them at their best and at their worst, and like them all better for it

As narrated in an essay from an application to Princeton University, Spanglish relates the tale of Flor Moreno (Vega, Sex and Lucia), who has spent the last six years in Los Angeles after crossing the border from Mexico, along with her young daughter, Christina (Bruce).  After working in the predominantly Hispanic section of the city, and never having to learn anything more than Spanish, Flor finds an opportunity as a maid in the home of an English-speaking family.  The language barrier is there, but she does the best she can to fit in, although she finds that some of the behavior of the family encroaches into her private life, especially when the family goes to Malibu to live in their summer home, and she must bring her daughter along.

As conceived by Brooks, Spanglish is a film of small moments that he hopes to make add up to a much larger film, and while he does succeed in giving us those scenes of interest, he never quite gets it to gel into a satisfying whole.   For this I blame the casting primarily, as this particular cast of actors, try as they might, just don’t seem to work well enough together to make this seem like real people in real situations, instead of the sitcom it plays out as. 

Having lived in Southern California most of my life, and being of Hispanic descent myself, I have picked up a thing or two about Spanish dialects, which is just as varied as English, and from the first moment I heard Paz Vega speak, she sounded like a Spaniard to me, and not the native Mexican she is supposed to be.  Granted, not everyone will catch this, or even care, but for some reason, this lack of authenticity worked against the film from my perspective. 

Another big distraction came from the fact that Flor could barely speak a word of English, despite living in the United States for six years.  Yes, there are many people living in the United States who know very little English, but when Flor doesn’t even know how to say things like “hello” or “thank you”, it becomes far too difficult to believe, especially when you consider that she has a daughter who speaks English so fluently.  It works the other way as well, as there is an Anglo family that has lived in Southern California all their lives, in a city that is almost 50% Hispanic, and yet their grasp of Spanish is just as bad.

As mentioned earlier, Sandler is the biggest attraction here, and he gives an admirable low-key performance that, while it is refreshingly different for Sandler, isn’t particularly strong enough for the movie.  Sandler is a funny guy at times, but as your run-of-the-mill caring father and loving husband, he seems out of his element.  At no time did I ever think this was a master chef and family man -- I always saw him as Adam Sandler, trying to branch out, every time he appeared on screen.

I guess the same thing goes for the high-strung performance by Tea Leoni (People I Know, Hollywood Ending), who alternates between over-the-top mania and over-the-top depression in a way that would normally indicate that she needs immediate psychiatric attention.  No way did I think she could come out of eccentric, but sympathetic Cloris Leachman’s (History of the World Part I, High Anxiety) loins.  Her character is played mostly for laughs, but rarely achieves any.

If this all sounds like I’m nitpicking, that’s because I am.  However, in a film that puts all its eggs in the basket of subtle touches and well-rounded characters, the lack of credibility goes to the heart of why this ranks as a lesser effort for a normally solid talent like Brooks.  Looking at the positives, and there are more positives here than most romantic comedies, Brooks does still give us enough interesting conversations and funny turns of events to keep our interest, and even if it does run a bit long (this could have easily been trimmed a half hour), it is mostly interesting time well spent.

Perhaps the best illustration I can make comes from the movie itself.  There’s a scene where the star chef of a 4-star restaurant is seen preparing and eating a simple (and quite sloppy) egg sandwich.  Just as Brooks has given us some of the finest romantic comedies of the last twenty years, instead of dishing out another amazing entrée, he’s given us the egg sandwich instead.

Qwipster's rating:

©2005 Vince Leo