After being abandoned by her husband in Mexico, Flor (Paz Vega) has decided to start a new life with her daughter Christina in California. She soon finds a housekeeping job with the Claskys, including bipolar Deborah (Tea Leoni), frazzled superstar chef John (Adam Sandler), kids Bernice (Sarah Steel) and Georgie (Ian Hyland), and alcoholic grandmother Evelyn (Cloris Leachman). Flor, unable to speak English, has trouble communicating with the Claskys at first, but immediately finds herself caught up in their aggressively dysfunctional, whirlwind life, which threatens to take Christina’s identity away along with Flor’s heart, which is slowly being given to John.
James L. Brooks is a respected filmmaker who never seems to connect fully with his pictures. The “Terms of Endearment” and “Broadcast News” director has a unique gift for bringing to life pictures dripping with profundity and realism; however, focus has never been his strong suit, and he often takes on more story than he can chew, as seen in his last film, the hit and miss 1997 sleeper success, “As Good as It Gets.”
“Spanglish” is Brooks’s first film in seven years, and yet nothing much has changed in terms of the filmmaker’s lackluster ability for cinematic control. The picture is a richly felt odyssey into complicated bilingual relationships, and features enough subplots to populate a small Caribbean island, but it doesn’t contain any glue. “Spanglish” is a good film, but frustratingly never comes close to being great, due to Brooks’s inability to hunker down and focus on any one narrative thread.
While most films are starving for dramatic meat, Brooks gives “Spanglish” too much, and the picture swerves from one incident to the next without the benefit of proper transitions. At any given moment, the film juggles such threads as John’s inability to communicate with frenzied Deborah and not being able to deal with his burgeoning restaurant business, Flor’s fear of losing Christina to Deborah and the Anglo world, Deborah’s extra marital affair, Bernice’s crippling low self-esteem due to her weight, Flor’s secret adoration for John, and Evelyn’s past of neglect and boozing. That’s a lot of story to cover, but Brook’s gift is the way he makes all these moments and ideas fascinating enough for their own film. The stories aren’t the problem in “Spanglish,” it’s Brooks’s inability to figure out which one to tell. What Brooks needed was a “Sophie’s Choice” moment for his screenplay, to pare down the picture to a manageable size. Because the film takes on so much dramatic weight, it’s often a rambling experience.
Brooks is far more confident with his actors, bestowing on each member of his cast a juicy role that everyone seemed to relish playing. The troupe is uniformly great, with Tea Leoni hyperventilating successfully in a very difficult and unsympathetic role, Adam Sandler taking another strong step towards an interesting dramatic career, and child actor Sarah Steel outstandingly realistic and articulate as vulnerable Bernice. The real star of the show is Paz Vega, who has the biggest hurdle of the film in that she rarely speaks English for most of the movie. To maintain the language barrier confusion critical to the story, Brooks has done away with subtitles completely, which leaves Vega with an acting handicap that she overcomes with complete authority. In her big Hollywood debut, Vega acquits herself wonderfully to the role. Her Flor is brimming with confusion and anger over her newfound family, yet secretly succumbing to their insanity, which Vega manages to physically articulate well. After her sexually charged work in the 2002 import “Sex and Lucia,” this Spanish actress turns the tables completely with “Spanglish,” superbly executing the complicated role Brooks has given her.
After a promising and intricate start, “Spanglish” loses its way rather severely in the second half of the picture. Character motivations start to become hazy, professions of love are bungled under the weight of improvisational acting, and the film starts to show signs of heavy editing, and many subplots are let go far too soon. What remains of “Spanglish” is another typical Brooks creation: a film of enormous wealth and beauty that just needs another fine tune to make it appear effortless.Rating: B