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Overall Rating
3.45

Awesome: 13.27%
Worth A Look40.82%
Just Average: 28.57%
Pretty Crappy: 12.24%
Sucks: 5.1%

8 reviews, 50 user ratings



Spanglish
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Entertaining but deeply flawed"
4 stars

“Spanglish” is the first film in seven years from acclaimed writer-director James L. Brooks and only the fifth of his career since moving from television (where he helped create “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, “Taxi” and “The Simpsons”) to the big screen with 1983’s “Terms of Endearment”. Clearly, he is a man who does not rush into a project until he has figured out exactly what he wants to say and how to say it and each of his films-which also include “Broadcast News”, the thoroughly underrated “I’ll Do Anything” and “As Good As It Gets”-has borne that out. And yet, “Spanglish” has a curiously unfocused feel to it; there are some wonderful things on display here but it never quite pulls together in the way that one would expect from a filmmaker of Brooks’s talent and reputation

As suggested by its title, the focus of “Spanglish” is on the inevitable clash that occurs when the morals and values of two wildly different cultures are forced to co-exist. Flor (Paz Vega) is a proud single mother who has been abandoned by her husband and who has determined to do right by her daughter, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce). To this end, the two of them slip across the border into America and make their way to Los Angeles, where Flor is able to make an adequate living in the Latino neighborhoods-so much so that she is able to go several years without picking up any English whatsoever. Circumstances force her to broaden her horizons if she is to give Cristina a chance and so, for the first time, she ventures outside the confines of her familiar neighborhood and goes to work as a housekeeper for the well-to-do Claskys, a family whose problems would seem incomprehensible to most people even if they spoke the same language.

John (Adam Sandler) is a devoted husband and father who suffers from a crippling fear of achievement. A highly regarded chef, he has seen how fame and success have changed the lives of his colleagues-never for the better-and he lives in dread that the same thing may happen to him. When he learns that a restaurant reviewer from the New York Times is in is bistro, he begins to panic and hopes that he gets, at most, maybe three-and-a-quarter stars-good, but not so good as to give him nowhere else to go but down. Unfortunately for him, his worst fears come true-not only does his restaurant get the normally coveted four stars, he is named the best chef in America.

In the Clasky household, however, John is the normal one, at least in comparison to his wife, Debra (Tea Leoni). A wildly neurotic and self-absorbed woman, she had previously been able to channel much of that into her work; unfortunately for her (and everyone around her), she has recently lost her job and now directs all of that negative energy at herself and her family in jaw-dropping ways. A relentless believer in self-improvement (her main activity seems to be her endless jogs), she takes the mild chubbiness of her daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele), who is all of 12, as a personal affront and deals with it in the most thoughtless way possible-she buys Bernice a load of wonderful new clothes but deliberately picks them in a size too small in order to encourage her to lose the weight.

John sees this and while he is appalled, he has no idea how to handle either the situation or Debra. Flor witnesses this as well and even though she doesn’t understand anything that was said, she does know a way to handle the situation; she surreptitiously alters the clothes so that Bernice can fit into them. From that moment, she begins to connect both with the child and with John. Despite the language barrier, she recognizes that the two of them have one key thing in common-a selfless desire to do right by their daughters even when they aren’t quite sure exactly what to do.

Things come to a head when Debra rents a beach house for the summer and insists that Flor stay with them for the duration. She and Cristina move in and find themselves assimilating further with the Claskys in unexpected ways. Debra is immediately taken with the more conventionally pretty and outgoing Cristina and begins insinuating herself in the child’s life-she takes her for shopping trips and makeovers and even arranges for a scholarship to a tony private school-all while completely ignoring the daughter that she should be doing these things with. John, growing increasingly disenchanted with his life and his wife, finds himself beginning to fall in love with Flor; however, this is a love based less on hormones and physical appearance (though such things cannot be denied when it involves someone who looks like Paz Vega) and more on that idealized sensation that occurs when one suspects that they have finally found a true kindred spirit that truly understands them.

This is an awful lot of material for a movie-and I see that I haven’t even mentioned such characters as Debra’s live-in mother (Cloris Leachman), a woman whose own narcissistic behavior decades earlier has now borne horrible fruit in the form of her daughter, the Claskys other child (Ian Hyland) or such situations as Debra’s love affair with a Realtor (Thomas Haden Church) or Flor’s fear that Cristina is becoming too assimilated for her own good-and at times, I began to get the suspicion that Brooks went into production without ever having a clear idea of the story that he wanted to tell. His previous films had multiple characters and storylines but they all had a strong central narrative to spring from. “Spanglish”, by comparison, is all over the place; there are time when it feels less like a story and more like a juggling act. There is a point where Debra’s mother, who has been painted as this serious alcoholic (although we never see her as being anything less than glib, articulate and witty whenever we see her with a drink), announces that she gave up drinking three weeks ago-however, everyone in the family was so absorbed with their own problems that they failed to even notice. A funny idea, I suppose, but the joke is killed by the simple fact that no one in the audience, or Brooks himself for that matter, seems to have noticed either.

The tone of the film is also all over the map; scenes veer wildly from broad comedy to poignant melodrama to acute social satire without rhyme or reason. Of course, one could argue that this is just mimicking real life, where things don’t necessarily flow with the precision of a well-crafted sitcom. This is true, but the problem with “Spanglish” is that it feels less like Brooks is trying to recreate the rhythms of real life and more like he was unsure how he wanted his film to work tonally and decided to shoot the scenes in the hopes of finding the right approach later on in the editing. What he has forgotten is that if those things aren’t there in the script in the first place, the necessary material probably isn’t going to crop up later in the editing bay.

The problem of tone is most obvious in the way that he depicts Debra. No slouch when it comes to depicting intensely neurotic characters, Brooks never seems quite sure if her outrageous behavior is meant to be a joke or is supposed to be taken seriously. Early on, there is a hilarious scene in which she takes someone else’s accident and winds up making it all about herself and her feelings. This is funny stuff but it mixes in uneasily with the moments when her self-absorption becomes so thoughtless and cruel that you begin to wonder how anyone could have put up with her for any amount of time. The fact that Brooks keeps jumping back and forth in his attitude towards her also suggests that he himself isn’t quite sure whether she should be scene as a source of humor, scorn or pity.

However, despite the numerous flaws in the narrative, there is still a lot to “Spanglish” that is quite wonderful. Once again, Brooks demonstrates a gift for getting the most out of his actors. In a role utterly unlike anything that he has done before (even his excellent work in “Punch-Drunk Love” was basically an extension of his typical screen persona-the emotionally disturbed loner who just wants to be loved-recast in the mold of an arty indie film as opposed to a frat-boy jape), Sandler is quite convincing at playing a nice, normal man who is trying to do the best by his wife and family as well as his heart; while it probably won’t appeal much to fans of his slob comedies, his work here demonstrates that he could have a significant career as a straight actor if he chose to. As for Leoni, she overcomes whatever confusion there might have been about the conception of her character by throwing herself flat-out into the part; not many actresses would be willing to play a person like Debra but she takes the risks required and the result is a scarily convincing performance as perhaps the most hideous human being depicted in a recent American film who isn’t actually a serial killer. Vega, a star in Spain (check out the great “Sex and Lucia” sometime) making her American debut here, is one of those actresses who simply light up the screen whenever she appears; it isn’t just the fact that she is gorgeous-she has a charm and good cheer about her that fairly leaps off the screen. The rest of the cast is equally good-Leachman winds up stealing every scene that she is in and Sarah Steele and Shelbie Brice turn in two of the best, least affected performances by young actresses in recent memory.

The other asset that “Spanglish” has is the fact that while Brooks may not have come up with a completely satisfying screenplay, he has not lost his ability to come up with great individual bits. There are moments of great humor and observation, equally impressive moments of poignancy and the kind of dialogue that people love to quote in real life because it so perfectly articulates what people are thinking and feeling without sounding too writerly. Two examples will suffice. One comes when Debra’s mother struggles to prevent her daughter from allowing her instincts to make a bad situation even worse and says, “Lately, your low self-esteem is just good common sense.” The other, which will no doubt be borrowed by love-struck suitors everywhere, comes during a long, subtle flirtation between John and Flor where he remarks, in all seriousness, “They should name a gender after you.” In print, these may not seem that spectacular but when they come appear in the film, they so perfectly sum things up that you want to applaud.

Despite my reservations, I like “Spanglish” despite its messiness and inability to pull itself together. If it had come from a first-time filmmaker, I probably would have found myself overlooking its flaws because the aspects that work in the film really work. Coming from a master of the form like Brooks, however, these inconsistencies and flaws are strangely disappointing. If he was going to take so much time between projects, why not spend a few more months pulling the script together into the heartwarming masterpiece that it could have been instead of the entertaining but deeply flawed work that it is.

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originally posted: 12/17/04 07:53:13
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User Comments

3/29/16 Perplexed Lovely "Hollywood" story. I'm f/Latam;no Latin would pull her child f/a good school! 4 stars
7/11/12 Gaudencio Mucu Very good movie 4 stars
10/27/09 the dork knight Bullshit ending topedoes excellent work done by director and cast alike. 4 stars
8/06/09 Simon Brooks' writing infuses the characters with such sincere humanity, especially in dialogue 5 stars
7/23/08 Shaun Wallner Sandler makes some great films! 4 stars
6/15/08 PAUL SHORTT SPEAKS THE LANGUAGE OF THE HEART 3 stars
7/10/07 VIVEK KRISHNAN A PERFECT EXAMPLE FOR A GREAT FILM 5 stars
1/09/07 johnnyfog Huh. Sandler and Leoni can act? Freaky 4 stars
11/09/06 JA RULE THIS IS REALLY A FUCKED UP SHIT FILM 1 stars
11/04/06 misty I thought it was great. Actors seemed very real. 5 stars
10/05/06 chika the movie is interesting for me, i decide to analyze that movie as my thesis in my college 3 stars
8/28/06 Lily P Cool movie! GO AND SEE IT!! 4 stars
8/07/06 2007 titan poker titan poker 100$ 5 stars
7/10/06 Marty very good dialogue, takes a patient viewer tho 5 stars
7/07/06 NS BAD!!! I was enraged and dissapointed. 2 stars
6/04/06 mary not good 1 stars
5/01/06 Anthony Feor Sandler goes downhill even more 1 stars
4/02/06 Dog Surfer I'd give it 4 3/4 stars as would John Clasky. Paz Vega is wonderfully expressive. 5 stars
3/11/06 Shaun Wallner YAWN BOring 2 stars
12/06/05 JOHN PAZ VEGA ,MAKES THIS MOVIE , SHE IS ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN I HAVE EVER SEEN, 4 stars
11/30/05 Lauren loved the movie, especially the ending. No matter what happens, she'll still be proud, 5 stars
11/30/05 K NOT my kind of move...i LOVED it!! so will u 4 stars
11/27/05 Karen Manipulative nonsense 1 stars
11/25/05 Smitty I'm sorry, Vega is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen - her expressions are wonderful. 4 stars
8/29/05 ES That egg sandwich he made looked good, probably the best part of the movie 3 stars
8/14/05 KCobain Wow! Great ending that separates this from typical hollywood fare. 5 stars
8/07/05 George Jetson Muddled story; Sandler doesn't act, he just sort of mumbles his way through the scenes 2 stars
8/01/05 Ondrej Horror! Horror! One of the worst movies I have ever seen. 1 stars
6/23/05 azpinoy Paz Vega is very hot! 3 stars
6/22/05 Angie Erickson didn't care for this 2 stars
6/20/05 darick Would have been 4 but for the ending. 3 stars
6/03/05 The Mockingbird surprised my being really good, so heartfelt and hardly a false note 5 stars
5/27/05 Christina I fell in love with this movie! 5 stars
5/05/05 Taylor Fladgate Tried to like it...but couldn't. And, horrible ending. 3 stars
4/07/05 Scott Lamont Waaay better than I expected. Excellent character development, one and all. 4 stars
3/25/05 Denise sandler is great 4 stars
3/18/05 Rachel I laughed, cried, and wanted more Tea, Adam, Cloris, and Paz 5 stars
3/14/05 brody paz vega was good 4 stars
2/21/05 ELI Um...It was ok. Ending was sucky and I couldn't connect w/ anyone 3 stars
2/18/05 Jennifer DePoalo funny and cute, but could have improved the ending 3 stars
2/15/05 Melody Arneil Adam Sandler proves he can go on beyond the one note/potty humor films he's known for 4 stars
1/31/05 Danita Berg Wow...Paz is beautiful. Sandler tries to hard to be meloncholy. 3 stars
1/28/05 govenar too melodramatic 3 stars
1/15/05 Jeff Anderson A big disappointment. Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni, and especially Paz Vega are great however. 2 stars
1/07/05 Vicki Great actors, great director, promising premise but I was expecting more from the film. 4 stars
12/25/04 Sandya Swamy I truly enjoyed the film; it is one of the best American films I have seen in a while. 5 stars
12/22/04 Smitty THE perfect date movie, well cast & acted, excellent screenplay.Vega's closeups are amazing 4 stars
12/22/04 Emile S. Siman Needs to be trimmed--bad script. 2 stars
12/20/04 ramjan02 ramjan02@yahoo.com 5 stars
12/12/04 Jim Lochner Very good not great 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  17-Dec-2004 (PG-13)
  DVD: 05-Apr-2005

UK
  N/A

Australia
  17-Feb-2005


Directed by
  James L. Brooks

Written by
  James L. Brooks

Cast
  Adam Sandler
  Téa Leoni
  Cloris Leachman
  Paz Vega
  Allen Covert
  Ian Hyland



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