There are those who might say “Even a bad film made by James L. Brooks is better than a good film made by another, lesser director.” But that’s simply not true. A bad film by James L. Brooks remains, in fact, a bad film. And Spanglish is a bad film.
What exactly is wrong with Spanglish is somewhat hard to pinpoint. It could be the meandering, artificial narrative, which feels half-baked and fails to resolve itself in a way that even approaches interesting. Or it might be the presence of Adam Sandler, who is in way over his head here. Somebody should inform Sandler that acting is not walking around in a hypnotic trance only to suddenly, at key moments, raise one’s voice to a startling, decibel-bursting shout. Brooks, who is normally wonderful with non-actors, doesn’t really know what to do with Sandler, so he lets him do some shticky stuff and generally be a void at the center Spanglish‘s universe.
Counting Spanglish, Brooks has only made five movies, the last in 1997, the marvelous As Good as It Gets. His pinnacle achievement, however, remains Broadcast News, although there are those who would claim his masterpiece to be the 1983 tearjerker Terms of Endearment. Spanglish falls on the other end of the spectrum. It’s almost as dreadful as Brooks’ 1994 wipeout, I’ll Do Anything. If a common thread runs through Brooks’ works, it’s his exploration of the human-condition, framed in a non-challenging sitcom-ish fashion. What made As Good as It Gets and Broadcast News so great was their artful blending of unique characters and situation, as well as extremely well-polished screenplays (Brooks writes all his own films).
Spanglish continues the human condition exploration, striving to be a tale of how parents treat their children — and vice-versa. Thrown in for good measure: a dash of assimilation dreams and a pound of unrequited romance with which to (falsely) tug our heartstrings. The film feels contrived from the start, as single mother Flor Moreno (Paz Vega) and her young daughter Christina (Shelbie Bruce) leave their impoverished situation in Mexico for Los Angeles. “White America beckoned,” says Christina, who keeps us clued in to the action through a clumsy voice over, “and my mother walked across the cultural divide.”
Flor, who doesn’t speak English, ends up working for John Clasky (Sandler), a celebrity chef with a neurotic fear of success, and his insensitive, self-absorbed wife, Deborah (Tea Leoni). John and Deborah have a troubled relationship, to say the least. Deborah is a manipulative, psychologically abusive mother — she buys their overweight teenage daughter Bernice new clothes a size too small to prompt the insecure teen to lose weight — and an unfulfilled wife whose evenings out may fly under the radar of her night-shift husband, but don’t go unnoticed by her mother (who lives with them), an alcoholic with a acrid tongue (Cloris Leachman). John is the story’s sap. A nice and consistently calm-headed guy, he sees in Flor everything he wants Deborah to be.
Flor’s presence is meant to change the Clasky’s lives — she’s the Mexican Mary Poppins who brings a spoonful of clarity — but the changes don’t really register, and by the lukewarm, hug-filled finale, the movie has disintegrated into a meaningless muddle, leaving most of the characters dangling on a frayed thread.
Sandler notwithstanding, Brooks gets decent performances out of his ensemble, including, remarkably enough, Leoni, who sinks her fangs into the role, and the radiant Vega, whose earthbound decency is offset by her natural sensuality. As Bernice, newcomer Sarah Steele does exactly as her last name implies with virtually every scene she’s in. She’s bested only by veteran Leachman, who delivers the movie’s best lines with comic grace.
Only one thing might have saved Spanglish — a cameo from that other Brooks — Albert — profusely sweating away.
I haven’t yet seen The Aviator and several other year-end hopefuls, so this year I’m simply offering up a list of my five favorite (and least favorite) films of 2004.
As for my favorites, they are, in order:
There’s a much bigger field from which to harvest my least favorites, but they are, in order: