For Spanglish, the Language Barrier is the Least of its Problems
Flor (Paz Vega) values her heritage. Abandoned by her husband, she decides that single motherhood in the United States will work better than in her native Mexico; however, not wanting her young daughter Cristina (Victoria Luna) to grow up gringo, Flor waits several years before illegally crossing into the States, allowing Cristina time to soak up her native culture.
Several years later, a pre-teen Cristina (now played by Shelbie Bruce) has grown up bubbly and bi-lingual, but her mother, struggling to hold down two menial jobs, has yet to learn a dozen English words. In efforts to find a higher-paid job with more free time, Flor’s friends convince her to join the ranks of domestic servants in rich, white households. She lands a gig with the Clasky clan, where master chef John (Adam Sandler) brings home the bacon, but where whatever the hyperactively neurotic Deborah (Téa Leoni) says, goes. Problems ensue, as the image-obsessed Deborah begins favoring Cristina over her own somewhat chubby spawn, much to the chagrin of kind-to-a-fault John—who’s starting to have a thing for Flor.
Spanglish doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but even writer-director James L. Brooks’ modest ambitions for this romantic dramedy go largely unfulfilled. One would think any humor or pathos milked from this set-up would be sparked by an examination of culture and class clashes, large or small, between impoverished Mexican-Americans and privileged European-Americans. To achieve this, however, Brooks (As Good As It Gets) would need to first overcome his own many misunderstandings about these groups and their interactions.
For starters, Brooks’ naive vision of domestic servitude stretches believability from the very beginning. The much-more-than-living-wage Deborah gleefully offers Flor, an illegal immigrant who speaks nary a word of English, would probably sound good to most Baltimoreans. Moreover, the Claskys don’t actually expect Flor to do much work—we rarely see her engaged in chores more demanding than straightening a few newspapers. If Brooks treats his maid this well, good for him, but the suggestion that a spastic, selfish creation like Deborah would, too, just doesn’t gel.
One would also hope that with a title like Spanglish, some humor would result from wordplay, as Flor and her employers struggle to overcome their language barrier. Nope. Better wait for Franglais (or perhaps even Portugish). Instead, through the magic of language tapes, Flor advances from needing Cristina to translate the simplest of phrases one moment to timid-but-thorough fluency the next. Flor’s transformation helps move the plot along—at this point she and John have begun making doe eyes at each other, and the ability to exchange words would certainly prove helpful—but it’s a suspension of disbelief audiences would allow only if thoroughly entertained.
Sadly, this doesn’t happen. Sandler tries hard. Few actors come across as well as a caring parent, and his ability to convince as a shat-upon loser-at-love, established in grand fashion throughout Paul Thomas Anderson’s extraordinary Punch-Drunk Love, serves him ably here. But Leoni also tries hard—way too hard. This usually fine actress goes for the gusto as Deborah, and if the other actors matched her energy level, we’d have another—probably better—film. As it is, Brooks failed to get all the actors on the same page; Sandler, Leoni, and Cloris Leachman (in a humorous turn as Deborah’s mom Evelyn, a former jazz singer/floozy turned lovable alcoholic) all have different ideas of what film Brooks wants.
Vega and Bruce, on the other hand, nail Brooks’ mission for them: namely, to look cute and score some warm-and-fuzzy points every now and then. While set in the present, a 17-year-old Cristina narrates Spanglish as one big flashback; everything we see takes place in an essay within her college application, read some years hence. (Does this make Spanglish a science-fiction film?) This way, Brooks gets to pretend he’s telling these gutsy women’s story, while he clearly feels more comfortable dwelling on the problems of rich white folk.
Spanglish does shine at points. A hilariously awkward yet ultimately moving sex scene between Sandler and Leoni, cut from the same cloth as Punch-Drunk Love, performs as well as any in recent memory. Many other little moments also work, including some when Flor and John start to wonder if their mutual affection will ever find satisfying expression. But it’s a coin toss as to whether these fleeting moments of success amount to even the most cautious of recommendations—especially given how often these heartfelt moments immediately give way to hollow, clumsy missteps that’ll make you slap your forehead in disbelief.