Writer-director James L Brooks delivers another one of his signature looks at relationships, this time involving a Mexican housekeeper and a well-to-do Los Angeles family. Yet coming from an Oscar-winning master of such heartfelt movies as Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets, Spanglish unfortunately doesn't quite meet expectations.
Cultures collide when beautiful Mexican native Flor (Paz Vega), a recent import to Los Angeles who can't speak English, becomes the housekeeper for the affluent but dysfunctional Claskys. They include chef and devoted dad John (Adam Sandler), his high-strung wife Deborah (Téa Leoni), their two kids, and Deborah's lush of a mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman). Flor's relationship with the Claskys starts out as very professional, but she soon becomes emotionally involved with the family. Flor finds herself first defending her parenting skills, especially after Deborah, who is knee-deep in an identity crisis, takes Flor's precocious 12-year-old daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) under her wing. Then, to add insult to injury, Flor and the kindhearted John find themselves attracted to one another after bonding over how to parent their respective children. This connection acts as a catalyst for John and Flor to reevaluate their lives, motivating them to solve their respective family problems--as we collectively sigh and grab for the tissues.
Perfect casting is generally paramount in a James L. Brooks movie. Imagine Broadcast News without Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks, or As Good As It Gets without Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. Spanglish, however, misses the mark in places. Accomplished Spanish actress Vega (Sex and Lucia) is the shining star. Not only is she's simply mesmerizing as Flor, but Vega has an unbelievably expressive face that shows a generous and courageous spirit. It's Sandler and Leoni who fail to inspire the same quick-witted chemistry as other Brooks pairings. Although Sandler displayed some serious acting chops in Punch-Drunk Love, and handles the part of John with aplomb, the usually comedic actor is just hard to buy as the loving, rational parent of two preadolescent kids, let alone a four-star chef. Leoni, on the other hand, has the arduous task of playing one of the most unlikable characters in recent memory. The actress is almost too good at making Deborah so completely neurotic and insecure, it's like watching someone scratch fingernails down a chalkboard. Leachman also seems a tad wasted as the boozy but lovable grandmother trying to make amends for her past sins. One wonders what Anne Bancroft, who was originally slotted for the part, would have done with it.
Even if he's sometimes a bit overly sentimental, James L. Brooks is still a master storyteller. He's able to tap into genuine emotions, and he possesses an uncanny knack for razor-sharp dialogue. It's true, the writer-director has had one major flop on his resume--the abysmal I'll Do Anything--so we know there's always a chance he could fail. Fortunately, with Spanglish, Brooks doesn't really fail. He's on top of his game illustrating the mother-daughter moments between Flor and Cristina, played exquisitely by Shelbie Bruce in her film debut. The best moments come when Cristina must translate her mother's very angry but very adult thoughts to John, and when Flor must finally reinsert her motherly power over her wayward child. Brooks also nails the final resolution between John and Flor, in which he cooks for her and they share a blissful night simply talking and canoodling. But Spanglish doesn't connect as often as it could, and neither do the Claskys themselves. In those moments in which the family interacts--be it between John and his own daughter, Deborah and her mother, John and Deborah--things seem forced and stilted. I guess Brooks just can't be brilliant every single time.
Spanglish may not necessarily be up to James L. Brooks' usual Oscar-caliber standards, but its still an enjoyable movie full of poignant moments.