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Téa Leoni pursues Paz Vega, who unknowingly
has the results of the 2004 Ohio recount
contained on a chip, hidden inside of her head. 
"President Bush won't be happy about this,"
says Vega.  "Don't you mean, President Kerry?"

Téa responds.

Spanglish
Review written by: Alex Sandell

It's been a long seven years since James L. Brooks released the romantic classic, As Good as It Gets.  Since that time, I've played the DVD to the point of wearing down the disc, blowing out my player and causing my television set to melt, like the Wicked Witch of the West would, if starring in a "Golden Showers" video.  The movie was hilarious, touching, controversial, and politically incorrect; it also took romance to levels previously only hinted at on film.  A couple months ago, I bought a new DVD player and was looking forward to wearing it out with Spanglish.  Sadly, I think my new DVD player is going to be lasting me an awfully long time.

While better than 98.234% of the fluff passed off as "romantic comedy," Spanglish never approaches the quality of As Good as it Gets, or even Brooks' earlier works, such as Broadcast News or Terms of Endearment.  The problem with the majority of James L. Brooks' movies is that they rely heavily on dialogue -- some of which is pedestrian -- causing them to occasionally bore a person to tears; like a fundraiser on PBS or the three hour season finale of The ApprenticeAs Good as It Gets didn't get caught up in this trap and was captivating throughout.  The dialogue was anything but pedestrian and the actors delivered it like a fire was lit up under their asses.  Spanglish doesn't hold your attention the way that As Good as It Gets did.  Its characters are painted with broader strokes, its dialogue isn't as sharp and much of its comedy feels forced. 

The movie has plenty of promise.  The film starts with a single mother, Flor Moreno (Paz Vega) and her young daughter, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) illegally entering America (driving the conservatives on FOX "NEWS" nuts), in search of a better life.  They settle in a Latino community in L.A., where Flor hopes to keep herself and her daughter firmly rooted in the world poverty forced them to leave behind.  She manages to isolate herself and, to a lesser extent, her daughter from American culture until working two jobs for $450.00 a week proves impossible, and she's forced to look for one job that will pay the same amount as the combined salary she was earning did.  That's when she's hired as the Clasky family's housekeeper. 

Using a translator, Flor is interviewed by Deborah Clasky (Téa Leoni).  Deborah is a self-centered, hyper-spaz of a woman at the start of an early hurricane of a midlife crisis.  She has recently lost her job and is not having an easy go at being a full time mother (she, along with her husband, has two kids).  Treating her children more like employees, Deborah's idea of properly raising a child is to buy her daughter stylish clothes that are at least one size too small.  She figures that will give her daughter the "incentive" to lose the weight.  She's oblivious to how much she's hurting her own offspring. 

Deborah’s mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), tries to help her daughter, but her advice goes in one ear and out the other.  Evelyn was a jazz singer and is trying to cope with the hardship that comes with moving back in with her uppity daughter.  She does so by drowning her sorrow in whatever bottle of wine is available.  When she does quit drinking, at a certain point in the movie, to focus on the problems being caused by her daughter, nobody notices.  Her daughter asks her if she's "buzzed" and she replies by saying that she hasn't had a drink in three weeks.  She proudly goes on to brag about what a productive drunk that she was (her way of saying it was much funnier than mine, but my brain atrophy is acting up). 

Flor considers Deborah’s rabid, frenzied demeanor inconsiderate, strange and nearly intolerable. Thanks to her inability to speak English, Flor can observe her employer’s apparent madness with some sense of detachment.  The housekeeper chooses to keep her private life and working life separate.  It isn't until she's asked to move into the family's summer home that she is forced to reveal that she has a daughter.  Flor isn't eager to move in with the family, but the bus she travels on doesn't drive as far out as their bungalow and she has to choose between keeping her job or staying in the Latino community where she feels at home.  Her daughter, Cristina, insists on moving in with the Clasky family.  Flor, always going that extra mile for her girl, finally agrees. 

It is at the summer home that Flor takes a greater notice in John Clasky (Adam Sandler).  John is a well-regarded chef who is disappointed in receiving a four star review, from the critic in his local paper.  The critic goes as far as to say that John Clasky is the best chef in the country.  John had a similar experience at a restaurant he worked for in New York and he saw how it changed the working environment, for the worse.  He had been hoping for no more than a three and a quarter star review.  That way he'd receive good business, but there wouldn't be a line of pompous rich assholes waiting outside every day, feeling that they're entitled to a corner seat. 

Like Flor, John puts his children above all else.  After his restaurant receives its four star review, one of his head chefs begins receiving offers from the competition.  John realizes that he can either work from morning to night, with no time to see his kids, or he can submit to the demands of his chef and hand over 20% ownership of his restaurant.  Flor becomes more attracted to John's dedication to his family, as John does to Flor's dedication to her daughter.  Both of them are pained over the way John's wife Deborah is ignoring her own children while spoiling Flor's daughter.  

Deborah begins mothering Cristina in the way she should be mothering her own daughter and son.  As Deborah’s egocentric behavior becomes more and more extreme (wait until you see the sex scene between her and John), Flor and John look for the stability they desperately need, in each other.  Before you can say, "what a convenient plot twist," the two form a mutual attraction for one another.  Will it blossom into a romance between the two?  Flor is single and John finds out that his wife has been cheating on him.  The table is set for an affair to remember, but would the innocence and devotion to family that attracted the two to each other be destroyed by a quick shag in front of the fireplace?

James L. Brooks set up the outline for one hell of a movie, but instead created a decent two-hour sitcom.  Flor and John's relationship should have been stronger.  The sparks of attraction don't really take hold until the film's final act.  Also, some of the characters are wasted.  In a film that focuses as strongly on parenting as Spanglish does, it's a shame that the Clasky's son, Georgie (Ian Hyland) is ignored throughout most of the movie and relegated to mumbling out only two or three lines. There isn't a single reason this character needs to be in the movie.

There are a lot of missed opportunities to show the Mexican heritage that Flor's so reluctant to leave behind.  She's a proud Mexican and hopes her daughter will never forget her strong Mexican roots.  In one scene, after Deborah has put Flor's daughter Cristina into an expensive private school, you can tell that Flor is crushed that Cristina would rather stay with her wealthy new friends than visit her grandmother, who came all the way from Mexico, for a visit.  If the audience would have been provided with a bit more of a background story, this scene could have been devastating.  As it is, it's just a few humdrum minutes of made-for-TV melodrama.

The acting is the glue that holds the weaker moments in the picture together.  Adam Sandler uses his real voice throughout the entire film.  The "confused child" voice he's famous for is gone.  There are a few moments where he'll pull a "Happy Gilmore" and scream an obscenity, or go all "Billy Madison" on our asses and make a weird comment such as, "I'd like to light my hair on fire and punch myself in the face until I die" (I'm paraphrasing) but, for the most part, he plays the role of John Clasky straight.  While his performance isn't earth shattering, it is genuine, heartfelt and proof positive that Adam Sandler could make the transition from comedy to drama, like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and Tom Hanks before him.  Sandler's surprise dramatic turn (one that I consider even more of a stretch than the excellent performance he gave in Punch Drunk Love), alone, makes the film worth viewing.

While I've never been a huge fan of Téa Leoni's exaggerated acting style ("hate" would be too kind a word), this is the part she was born to play.  All the annoying Téa traits suit the character she's playing, rather than rape what could have been a potentially good character (think her awful turn in Jurassic Park III).  Sure, you'll want to strangle her by the end of the picture, just like you want to do at the end of any picture she stars in, but this time you're supposed to have that murderous desire.  Is her character merely confused, or is she just a total bitch?  Either way, she's almost unbearable to stare at for two hours.  As hard as it is to admit, I actually did feel sympathy for her during one small scene.  I can't tell you what it is, without spoiling a key plot point, but if you really want to know, send me an email

The two young girls in the film do a fantastic job.  Deborah's chubby daughter, Bernice (Sarah Steele -- who gained 17 pounds for the role) isn't given enough scenes, but she steals the few that she's in.  It's impossible not to feel this young girl's pain when she realizes she can't fit into the fancy new clothing her misguided/disgustingly manic mother bought her.  Not to be outdone, Shelbie Bruce, another child actor making her feature film debut, runs the gamut of emotion as Cristina.  From the show stopping scene where she is forced to translate an argument between her mother and John to the subtle transformation from a curious, yet modest, child to a self-absorbed girl with nothing left in her heart but drive and ambition; Shelbie Bruce owns this movie. 

Paz Vega is given the most demanding part in the picture.  As Flor, she is forced to play a Mexican woman with a Mexican accent (she's actually from Spain).  More difficult yet, when she does begin learning English, in the film, she has to sound like a Mexican learning English, which sounds different from a Spaniard learning the language.  Being that she doesn't speak English until 2/3rds of the way into the film, she has to do most of her performing through gestures.  Her performance evoked fond memories of those given in silent films.  When you consider that the actress herself doesn't speak a word of English and had to have all of James L. Brooks' direction translated for her, it is an incredible acting feat that shouldn't be overlooked at the Academy Awards.

There is no doubt that James L. Brooks has made another charming film (is he capable of making any other?).  It's unfortunate that he was content to stop at charming, instead of taking it one step further and developing something magical.  Instead of a classic along the lines of As Good as It Gets; Spanglish is merely a pleasant diversion.  It will put a smile on your face, but may leave you wanting more.  If that's the case, there's always the As Good as It Gets DVD.  I'm sure there will be a tenth anniversary deluxe collector's edition coming out soon.  Until then, I can recommend a matinee viewing of Spanglish, but can't help but mourn what could have been, if there had been less plot threads or if the numerous threads in the plot had been better developed.  I pray for a three hour director's cut.

Agree? Disagree? Have questions?  Comments?  Email this critic at alex@juicycerebellum.com

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COMING SOON - Reviews of The Aviator, The Phantom of the Opera and, just because it's been requested more than ANY other movie yet to be reviewed on this site, Hellboy (so who says I don't listen to my readers?)!

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