A film review by Craig J. Koban

SPANGLISH jjj
½ 

2004, PG-13, 129 mins.

John Clasky: Adam Sandler / Deborah Clasky: Tea Leoni / Flor: Paz Vega / Evelyn: Cloris Leachman / Christina: Shelbie Bruce / Bernice Clasky: Sarah Steele

Written and directed by James L. Books

Spanglish Poster

Writer /Director James L. Brooks has always made deeply personal dramas about people who live their lives on the desperate tightrope of happiness and dark despair and tragedy.  His films, from 1983’s TERMS OF ENDEARMENT to 1987’s BROADCAST NEWS to even his most recent entry, the Oscar nominated 1997 film AS GOOD AS IT GETS, all have deep emotional centers that delicately marries tender comedy and sweet, if not harsh, sentiment.  His films are always so refreshingly multi-layered in the sense that they have wonderfully realized characters that are all well defined, not to mention smart and thoughtful writing. 

His new film, SPANGLISH, does not quite achieve the same level of greatness as AS GOOD AS IT GETS, nor does it contain very many memorable lines (especially the ones where Jack Nicholson reveals how he feels about people who talk in metaphors and how he writes women so well), but it nevertheless is still a drama with all of the Brooksian elements assembled together fairly effectively. 

Yes, the story does take awhile to develop interest and our investment, but it sure is a warmly inviting one once it gets going, and one where the characters are fresh, offbeat, original, and, much like in Brooks’ previous films, flawed and ultimately forgivable.  Not only that, it further reveals the subtle and hidden depths of Adam Sandler’s dramatic range and shows that how he, with the proper directorial guidance, can tune in a layered and focused performance that may surprise you. 

SPANGLISH is ostensibly a family drama/comedy that mostly focuses on a young Spanish mother named Flor (the gorgeous Paz Vega, more on her later) and her young daughter Christina (Shelbie Bruce) who attempt to seek refuge from their pasts in Mexico and start things fresh in Los Angeles.  The reasons for their leaving Mexico are quite simply defined; Flor wants to escape to the Anglo world in hopes of providing a better life for her young daughter and further hopes to obtain work that will financially pay off better for the two. 

The film is largely narrated by the daughter as a series of retrospective flashbacks.  The 17-year-old is now applying for College entrance and the narration is basically he College letter dictating whom she feels is the most influential person in her life.  Clearly, as her narration explains, this person is her mother, and she goes on to elaborate on how her mother started in America with relatively nothing and eventually got a job as a housekeeper to a rich family that gives dysfunction a new hidden meaning.  The fact that she speaks no English at first, but later learns it as a means to slap some sanity back into this family, is a testament to her resolve and determination. 

The family she works with are a colourful ensemble indeed.  The father of the household is a Nationally famous chef named John Clasky (Adam Sandler, who, believe it or not, has never been better in a film).  He is not only a good chef, but a brilliant chef, the “best chef in America” as one newspaper critic writes.  One would think that with accolades this deep that John would have a head as big as Mexico, but Sandler creates a man much more complex and sensitive than that.

 He’s a man who’s always calm, reflective, and easy going that always tries to look out for everyone around him.  Ironically, he’s not so much a perfectionist snob with anger management issues (which most Sandler characters seem to have all the bloody time), but rather refreshingly restrained and soft-spoken.  Even when he gets his four star review in the paper, he sees it not as a time to celebrate, but rather as a time to panic.  Restaurants, he feels, are ruined by four-star reviews because then every hillbilly will want to come to it to dine.  A three and a quarter star review, he feels, is perfect – not quite masterful praise, but enough to get you noticed as a man who has great skills but has not quite achieved flawlessness.  It’s John’s sort of quiet indignation and inner neurotic tendencies that ultimately makes him one of the more sympathetic, and likeable, characters in the film. 

Then there is his wife Deborah (Tea Leoni), who is an incredible foil to her husband.  When we are introduced to her she immediately comes across as a woman that explodes all over the map with conflicting emotional outbursts.  She’s either the most annoying woman I have ever met in a film or a woman of deep emotional and mental problems and instability, or maybe both.  On one hand, Deborah is likeable in the sense that she is nice, warm-hearted, and seems to have her heart in the right place, even when her actions may seem cruel and disdainful to us.  One scene in particular reveals this, as she brings her overweight daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele) clothes home that are two sizes two small.  Why would she do this?  Well, in hopes of motivating Bernice to lose weight.  Okay, it seems heart wrenching that a mother would do this, especially to a pre-adolescent girl that has enormous difficulties with body issues, and the daughter’s reactions are predictable.  However, it’s easy for us to hate Deborah for her unwise approach, but she’s not a mean or vindictive woman.  Really, she was just wanted to help her daughter get healthy. 

Yet, no matter how much compassion we may develop for Deborah, she is also, quite frankly, a demonstrative lunatic that would give psychologists studying bipolar disorders something new to investigate.  Leoni plays Deborah, much of the time, as hysterical, manic and a woman that feels that life sort of dumps one dilemma after the other on her, even when they are seemingly small.  Deborah is one of the more interesting and odd characters of the year, and one that is not easily defined into one sparse category.  Of course, I am not sure that an actual woman like this cannot exists outside of the confines of a nice, warm straight jacket, but she nevertheless provides the spark of necessary tension that the story needs to build momentum.  And in Leoni’s hands, it’s a tour de force performance of intrinsic low self-worth and furious liveliness. 

Then there is the mother of Deborah, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman) who just may be one of the more affable and approachable alcoholics in recent film memory.  She’s one of those supporting characters with seemingly devastating flaws that are not really altogether devastating in the world of the film.  Yes, she’s an old drunk coot that starts drinking far earlier than most people do in the day, but when she’s done she still has enough sense to spit out some fairly insightful advice to the characters.  It’s not really all that offensive that Brooks makes her character so affectionate (in real life, she would be much more of a handful), but she serves to be a comic relief to the other insanity that occupies the household, and some of her moments are wonderfully realized bits of acting.  There is one moment near the end of the film, when Deborah is at her absolute worst, where Evelyn actually sobers up (“I quit drinking weeks ago! No one noticed, but I guess that's a pretty good indicator that I conducted myself quite well when I was drunk. But this isn't about me right now.") and helps Deborah out at her most urgent of times.  Leachman’s mother figure may not resonate with much realism, but its still a wickedly droll and perceptive performance. 

Finally, we have Paz Vega in a breakout role as Flor (whose name must be pronounced with the proper level of tongue rolling on the roof of your mouth, as she explains in the film). Of all of the characters, we respond the most warmly and personally to her, and this is a true testament to Vega’s great and affectionate performance (she speaks her native language throughout 80 per cent of the film, but she inspires our attachment to her with her personality and manner, which speaks volumes).  Vega is a pure delight in the film, and is poised on being a major talent in the future.  She interacts so effectively with all of the other characters, and some of her scenes steal the film. 

The film flirts with adultery between John and Flor, and their individual moments between the two when they are alone are some of the best acted and written scenes all year (“They should name genders after you,” John tells her in a passionate moment).  Of all of the relationships, John and Flora’s are given the most credence, and I loved the way it develops slowly and naturally.  The amount of repressed sexual tension between the two makes for powerful scenes, and Sadler and Vega have some really great chemistry and their performances find the right balance of yearning and sensibility.  I am not sure whether or not I liked the  outcome of their final moments together (it seemed a bit artificial and dramatically wrong), but I still begrudgingly accepted it.

SPANGLISH features some impressive performances in it by all of the major top-billed actors (especially Vega, Sandler, and Leoni).  I also especially liked the work of the two young actresses who play the respective children, and they all bring a right amount of humility and naturalness to their roles.  The chemistry between all of the participants is strong and their dialogue sparkles with the wit and energy that characterizes Brook’s previous films. 

Yet, the film kind of meanders around at times in search of focus.  The personalities are all well drawn and performed, but there is an overwhelming sense that Brooks is not sure who the centre of attention should be.  Should the story presumably be amount John and Deborah’s failed marriage?  Should it be about how Flor tries to mend the emotional wounds of the household?  Should it be about Flor and her daughter and their difficulties living in America?  Should the film be about the two and how their quickly formed friendship becomes something no one expected?  I am not sure where the real heart of the film lies, and there are certain elements of the story that seem to have closure at the wrong times.  The ending, especially, gave me mixed emotions.  It sort of rightfully encapsulates the difficult decisions that a young mother and her daughter have to make to get on with their lives, but Flor’s ultimate choice left a sour taste in my mouth, not to mention that it left several other lingering subplots unresolved. 

SPANGLISH, despite its few weakness on a narrative level, is still a wonderfully endearing film about family and relationships supported by strong writing and solid acting.  SPANGLISH rightfully deserves an audience because Brooks knows instinctively how to tell stories about people that matter.  He kind of brings this material from its apparent sitcom mentality and stretches it further from something that is rudimentary and melodramatic.  Instead, Brooks invests in his characters so strongly that we eventually become willing to forgive their bad choices and missteps.  It’s a nuanced and delicate film that, despite its messy focus, really is delightful and entertaining.  And, dear God I thought I would never say this, but it’s a miracle of a film in the way that it makes the most clever, congenial, sophisticated and considerate character one that is played by Adam Sandler.  You won’t find Happy Gilmore in this film, folks.

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