by Laura Kyle
Writer/director James Brooks (TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, AS GOOD AS IT GETS) has mastered the art of scripting and filming human relationships. And he makes no ifs, ands, or buts, in any language, about wanting to do this in SPANGLISH, a film about communication, and how words sometimes get in the way of it. Shame it wasn't too effective.Flor, played by Spanish beauty Paz Vega, is a "Mexican" immigrant in search of a better life for her young daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) in Los Angeles. Though determined to keep a firm grip on her Mexican identity and heritage, she is heaved right into the middle of an Anglo lifestyle, hired to care for the home and two children of the Clasky’s, accomplished chef John (Adam Sandler) and newly unemployed Deborah (Tea Leoni).
"Characters fight language barrier, audience fights emotional one."
A bit of melodrama squeezes itself into Spanglish as we learn Mrs. Clasky is kind of loopy; she alone will mold most of the plot. Her careless preoccupation with her daughter Bernice’s (Sarah Steele) weight problem, her favoritism of Flor’s daughter Cristina, and her high-strung marriage to John, all leave a gaping hole in the lives of the Clasky family, one that Flor could fill.
The characters are scrupulously treated and this is as much a result of Brook’s writing as of the talent of his cast, and that’s including Adam Sandler, who turns in a subtle, sweet performance as a man in desperate need of a connection with another human being.
And it seems that when you’re a woman in Hollywood, the thing to do to get noticed, is to play the “manic” female and Leoni does a superb job at it, genuine, and sometimes-erratic emotion bubbling out of her in every scene (and not in an annoying way). Vega is a stunning presence and her restrained approach to Flor reveals that while she is a newcomer to American film, she is hardly a newcomer to film. And the two youngest actresses, Sarah Steele and Shelbie Bruce, are perfectly cast and perfectly directed – helping to ease an otherwise sluggish pace.
A scene where Cristina translates back and forth between her mother and Mr. Clasky is one of the greatest I have seen all year, and it completely rested on the shoulders of Bruce. And Cloris Leachmen, as the live-in grandmother, is as usual – fabulous, funny, and natural, a decent selling point for Spanglish in fact.
However, as deliberate and thorough Brooks’ characters are, they also don’t have anywhere to go. They are handled almost too gently, Brooks dogged about sharing every behavioral detail about them with the audience, but reluctant to do anything with them that will provide a certain viewer satisfaction. He wants to observe, and is perhaps too afraid that a more organized style of storytelling will upstage his crafted characters. Unfortunately, without unifying Spanglish with more clearly stated themes or plot movement, moviegoers may find themselves understanding, but not relating.
Brooks was on page one, while I was ready for page twenty, and I’m not sure he ever even got there.
Still, he is highly capable at examining how more often than not, people aren’t listening to each other and don’t say what they mean; true communication is not found in superficial phrases or gestures. Mrs. Clasky is so consumed in her own insecurities that she has no awareness of others around her, and while Flor is met with the ultimate obstacle to communicating with the Clasky’s -- in that she can’t speak English (well, at least not until a mid-movie montage that seems to take care of a considerable amount of that problem), she is curiously enough, the best listener.
However, Spanglish is uprooted from this central emphasis, distracted by artificial attempts to hint at other themes, such as the collision of cultures (which is kind of funny since we only study White society, and Flor’s supposed Latin roots seem to top out at the fact that she speaks Spanish; she doesn’t even have a last name, so much for the importance of her background!). And more importantly, despite the in depth look Brooks gives to each of his main characters, his drive-by characterizations of lesser players which aren’t ever developed fully, and the unrewarding resolution, have me wondering if perhaps a lot was edited out – and in the wrong places.
One cannot expect a tidy picture though, when Brooks is trying to juggle so many relationships. Mother/daughter (in three instances), husband/wife, husband/mistress, etc… and perhaps this complexity is why there isn’t a clear thread an audience member can latch onto to carry them through the story.
The narrative voice-over is high school senior Cristina looking back at her experience, and yet her reflections are hardly necessary, the viewer doesn't need her to walk them through Spanglish, especially considering that Brooks doesn’t present the film from her point of view anyways (she opens it up, stirs it up, and ends it – but isn’t by any means the eyes we watch Spanglish through). So what could have been a guide a moviegoer could hear and rely on to tie things together, perhaps offsetting other problems in the film, resulted in an irrelevant distraction.There is enough substance in SPANGLISH to compel an audience, and plenty of useful insight to go along with it. And the set of actors certainly doesn’t hurt… but you’ll have trouble settling into this film, and probably won’t be as interested in the characters as Brooks is.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=11350&reviewer=369
originally posted: 12/12/04 18:47:45