by Jay Seaver
A little over year ago, Jason Whyte and I were chatting on Instant Messager about the worst movies of 2003. I arrived at Anger Management pretty quickly, but was puzzled by the number of otherwise respected actors who has supporting or cameo roles in that typical Adam Sandler turd. Either Hollywood is even more cynical and opportunistic than I had previously believed, or he's one of the nicest people in the world and people just like working with him. My fellow Jason said he was pretty sure it was the latter. "Well, for crying out loud," I said, "can't he be nice to WRITERS, too?"It looks like that has finally happened, and the results are remarkably good. Admittedly, he's not the lead here, despite what the credits and trailer may imply; Paz Vega is (aside: the trailer said "Introducing Paz Vega". Introducing? Geez, Sex and Lucia did play theatrically in the US, along with two other movies she's been in. Can we get any more provincial?) Sandler's not the only surprising performance, either, Téa Leoni was good enough to make me wonder who was playing Sandler's wife, since she's not normally this solid and I was pretty sure Felicity Huffman wasn't in this movie.
Ms. Vega plays Flor Moreno, an immigrant who comes to Los Angeles hoping to secure a better future for her six-year-old daughter Cristina. Staying with her sister in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood, she picks up very little English while Cristina becomes effortlessly bilingual. When her daughter turns twelve, Flor decides to find a single job that pays as much as the two she currently works, and despite not speaking the language, she impresses Deborah Clasky (Leoni) and her mother (Cloris Leachman) enough to secure a job as a housekeeper, though Deborah's husband John (Sandler), a chef with a new restaurant, is initially hesitant. Flor does not, initially, mention Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), until the Deborah says she has to be live-in help at their summer home in Malibu Beach.
I am an admitted sucker for immigrant stories, perhaps because the idea of being a stranger in a strange land is so far out of my experience (I was born and went to college fifty miles east of here; I grew up a hundred miles northeast, where most of my family still resides; my ancestors have been in North America a long time). It's something I'm not sure I could do, even with the excellent motivation most immigrants have. The dynamic between the adult who resists assimilation and the child who becomes American in the seeming blink of an eye is always an interesting one, fraught with a higher level of conflict than most parent-child relationships.
Here, Deborah is symbolically a corrupting influence on Cristina, taking the girl under her wing and giving her things her mother can't hope to, often without asking Flor's permission. She's much more than simply a force acting upon the Morenos' lives, though - she attaches herself to Cristina not out of malice, but because she finds the pretty, smart young girl easier to relate to than her own daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele). Bernice struggles in school, and she carries around a few extra pounds, and Deborah doesn't get that; she responds to insecurity with punishing workouts and demands for authority. She sees giving Bernice clothes that are a size too small as a motivator; Bernice and her father see it as an unwarranted rebuke. She's in many ways awful enough that the audience is eager to see her comeuppance, but when it comes, it's so much more than she can handle as to seem cruel. Leoni gives one of the year's best performances here, making Deborah mean without being calculating, as fragile as she is pushy. That the audience can understand her, maybe even sympathize a little, but still not like her means she hit a very tiny target.
Sandler's John Clasky is also insecure; unlike most Sandler characters, it never expresses itself as rage. He is as afraid of success as he is of failure; when he hears a food critic is visiting his restaurant, he figures three and a quarter stars would be ideal (indicating a good job but not creating expectations he feels he will inevitably fall short of). He's somewhat intimidated by his wife and attracted to Flor's beauty and common sense. In many ways, he stumbles through his life, often getting to the very edge of a huge mistake before pulling back. It's not as tricky a role as Deborah, but Sandler still handles it well. Which kind of surprises me; I wasn't aware he could actually act. Up until now, he's been a movie star who carried the same (annoying) persona from movie to movie; even Punch Drunk Love's Barry Egan was a dramatic variation on it.
The heart of the movie, of course, is Paz Vega's Flor. Her insecurity is that despite being a smart, resourceful, hard-working survivor, she feels like an idiot because she can't communicate effectively. Complaining about your employers' giving inappropriate gifts to your daughter is hard enough; needing someone to translate is worse; only having said daughter able to do it must just be humiliating. I liked Vega's performance, even considering that I often did not know what she was saying until it was translated; the meaning is always clear. She acquits herself reasonably well in English, too; I hope she does more American movies in the future.
The rest of the cast is solid - Shelbie Bruce and Sarah Steele are good kid actors, always coming off natural even if that's not always sweet. Cloris Leachman adds another great comic performance to a list almost too long to comprehend. She plays Deborah's mother, a genial alcoholic who was a popular singer, fifty years earlier, but who has accumulated a certain amount of wisdom despite that. She gets a lot of the movie's best lines.
Writer/director James L. Brooks shows a remarkably steady hand; though the framing device (an 18-year-old Cristina's college admittance essay) is a trifle awkward, the rest is sharp. There is, I imagine, a high degree-of-difficulty on the film - Leachman is the only real lock in terms of performance. Sandler's and Leoni's unimpressive outings have outweighed their good ones both in quantity and degree, while Paz Vega is making her first English-language movie, and the kids are, well, kids. But it turns out well, and even though it stretches past the two hour mark, it seldom feels padded. It is, I think, a much better film than Brooks's last one, As Good as It Gets; its characters are more relatable and not broad to the point of caricature.I, quite honestly, didn't expect to like this movie nearly as much as I did, fearing that Brooks would basically make an Adam Sandler movie. Fortunately, it's something much better, if (sadly) not nearly as profitable.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=11350&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/13/05 14:44:25