Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Play time: 2
Director: James L. Brooks
Screenwriters: James L. Brooks
Starring: Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, Paz Vega
The talent commentaries on The Simpsons DVD sets invariably credit executive producer James L. Brooks with the lines and moments that come dangerously close to drawing tears, the parts that balance the show’s snarky, sometimes brutal demeanor with a touch of sweetness and perhaps even sentimentality. Brooks has a talent for that, they say; for light, palatable bits of tearjerking sadness that are less than profound but can’t be described as sappy or maudlin either. Remember that Simpsons episode where Mr. Bergstrom, Lisa’s incredibly awesome new substitute teacher, gives her a note that says “You are Lisa Simpson” as a parting gift? That was all Brooks.
Spanglish, which Brooks wrote and directed, has a lot of that: moments of emotion that have no heft but don’t offend either, countered by instances of impressive cleverness. The film has less than zero staying power, and I ultimately have serious issues with its moral formulation, but its pleasures are difficult to negate. Much like the melodrama and humor play off each other, the movie’s less-than-cogent politics are almost like a foil for the charming performances and highly amusing script. Nobody’s perfect.
One point of potential controversy is the casting of Adam Sandler as the male lead. Careful observers will note that this is the first time since Mixed Nuts that Sander has been cast neither as a gimmick (Punch-Drunk Love) nor as the main sell (everything else). I admit that I am more or less sold on him: he has a way of injecting a convincing undercurrent of anger into an eminently nice-guy personality, which works for both comedy and a share of pathos; furthermore, he is somewhat unexpectedly a team player, doing nothing to call undue attention to his presence and fading into the background entirely when called upon to do so.
To be fair, the movie’s not about him anyway (though that somehow makes his performance all the more impressive). Sandler plays an up-and-coming master chef whose wife Deborah (Tea Leoni) brings a new maid into her home. Flor (Paz Vega) is an immensely proud woman who snuck across the Mexican border a few years ago with her daughter (who is telling us this story via a Princeton University admissions essay) and has staunchly resisted assimilation into American society, to the point of refusing to learn English. The story involves alternately kind-hearted and condescending attempts by the Clasky’s to make Flor and her daughter feel like a part of the family, and Flor’s mostly idiotic attempts to resist same.
One problem: Flor is an unlikable character. The Claskys’ kindness may be naive and condescending, but it’s kindness, and Flor continually rebuffs it as if they were attempting to drown her and her daughter in the bathtub. I understand that their differences purportedly arise from cultural issues, but her behavior shows an utter lack of understanding of humanity in general. At one point, the Clasky’s offer to send Flor’s daughter to their wealthy private school — something the girl desperately wants — with a full scholarship, and the fact that Flor even debates the merits of this tells me pretty much everything about her that I need to know. Deborah isn’t much better, granted, as adopting this Hispanic woman and her daughter into her family is mostly just a means of self-validation, but at least her arrogance has some positive externalities.
The ending rather abruptly establishes a moral structure that I find problematic. Flor’s final question to her daughter before the credits roll is this: “Is what you want to be someone very different than me?” And so what if she does? Does raising a child in your image necessitate and justify denying her opportunity? Is Flor really trying to do what’s best for her daughter, or is she selfishly trying to avoid damaging her own ego? I’d say the latter; the movie manifestly disagrees.
But even if Flor unintentionally winds up being the villain in this story, Spanglish still works. The performances from Sandler, Leoni, Sarah Steele as their daughter and Shelbie Bruce as Flor’s daughter are beautiful exemplars of comic timing and convincing, entirely syrup-free emotion, and Brooks’ script has an appealing ebb-and-flow, as well as some genius lines. I liked the jokey but still somehow real dynamic among the Clasky family, and the way that Flor and Cristina’s arrival brings their insecurities to the fore. And Flor, despite being an annoyance, earns sympathy points aplenty for the things she has been through and what she is now facing. If only the movie would stop lionizing her.