James L. Brooks' bland comedy-drama "Spanglish" takes a great deal of time to tell us some fairly obvious things: Mothers and daughters should love and respect each other. Husbands and wives shouldn't...
James L. Brooks’ bland comedy-drama “Spanglish” takes a great deal of time to tell us some fairly obvious things: Mothers and daughters should love and respect each other. Husbands and wives shouldn’t cheat on each other. Wealthy people should be nice to their household staff. While it can be difficult to communicate with people who don’t speak one’s native language, communication problems can occur even between those who speak the same language. And raising children is a difficult and challenging task even in the world of this movie, in which children are seemingly invisible, surfacing only when convenient for the plot.
If “Spanglish” could convey these truths with some charm, it might be possible to overlook the obviousness of the message. But the film is wildly unbalanced, centered on one of the year’s most overwritten characters: Deb (Téa Leoni) is a wealthy Los Angeles woman who, having recently lost her high-powered job, has become what she calls a “gulp, stay-at-home mom.” An astonishingly self-centered creature prone to dramatic shrieking, Deb mistreats her preteen daughter (Sarah Steele), ignores her son (Ian Hyland) and is rude to Flor (Paz Vega), the beautiful Mexican immigrant who is hired as the family’s housekeeper. She kisses her husband, John (Adam Sandler), as if she’d really rather bite him. Oh, and she’s having an affair with a real-estate agent.
Deb is, in short, a monster of selfishness, and there’s nothing poor Leoni can do to make us care about this character. By contrast, everyone else is as nice as can be, particularly the saintly John, a family man who doesn’t let his career (he’s a chef at a four-star restaurant) interfere with his devotion to his children, and the equally saintly Flor, who understands everything about the household despite speaking no English. It’s nice to see a major movie with a loving father at its center, but Sandler’s presence is so low-key (and his role so underwritten) that the movie becomes nonsensical: You can’t picture a world in which these two people might be married to each other.
Vega, the Spanish actress seen in “Talk to Her” and “Sex and Lucia,” is a lovely presence onscreen, and several of the supporting performances perk up the film a bit: Cloris Leachman rasps agreeably in an old-pro turn as Deb’s boozy mother; Steele has a touching, real-world awkwardness as the uncertain daughter. But the film too often seems to be talking down, to its subjects and to its audience, and Brooks never finds the ease of his more successful comedy/dramas “Broadcast News” and “As Good As It Gets.”
Though its cast is skilled, “Spanglish” has a language problem of its own.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org