Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Movie Review: Spanglish (2004)

A film by James L Brooks

When Flor's (Paz Vega) husband leaves her she is forced to emigrate from Mexico to America to find work so she can support herself and her daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce). After initially finding a lower paying job in a Mexican enclave within Las Angeles, Flor finds work as a housekeeper for Deborah (Tea Leoni). Deborah is a wealthy, self-absorbed society woman who doesn't really think of the feelings of other people. She is also absolutely crazy in a manic sort of a way. Her husband, John (Adam Sandler) is the normal one. He is a very successful chef and will soon be an even more successful chef when a top critic gives him a fantastic review. But, he is a committed family man who deeply loves his daughter Bernie (Sarah Steele) and while he must love his wife for some reason, he is very frustrated with her because her callous disregard for the feelings of Bernie even though Deborah thinks she is doing the right thing.

Into this strange, messed up family comes Flor. She is gentle, and kind, and she doesn't speak a lick of English. Translation and communication comes through Cristina, stuck between the excitement of a new way of life provided by Deborah (she treats Cristina better than she does her own daughter) and the steady tranquil traditions of her mother. The conflict of "Spanglish" comes in the form of Deborah. Deborah will whisk Cristina away for a day long excursion without asking permission from Flor. Her hurtful comments towards Bernie is upsetting John almost as much as Bernie. Deborah is paying little attention to her own husband or to her family except as they might relate towards her and her wishes. It is no wonder that we see a budding friendship (could it be more?) between John and Flor. John, like Flor, is gentle and kind and loving and is being hurt by his wife far more than he deserves.

There is no true narrative here in the sense that "Spanglish" does not directly follow a storyline. What we have is a movie about the relationships between these characters, most of whom are very likeable. The crazy thing is that we want John to leave his wife because we know that he would be very happy with Flor and that they would treat each other well. We want their children to get the love and attention they deserve. We know that Flor's presence has been nothing but a good thing to John's family and that she is a positive influence with how steady and responsible she is. If there is a villain here it is Deborah because she is just so unlikeable, yet at heart she must be a good person for John to have married her in the first place. We only barely see glimpses of her heart, though.

"Spanglish" has quite a bit going for it. The movie has a stellar cast which also includes Cloris Leachman has Deborah's alcoholic mother Evelyn. Leachman has all the best lines in the movie and I will be surprised if she doesn't pick up an Oscar nomination for her work here. She steals every scene she is in. The idea of an alcoholic mother could be a very harsh character, but in "Spanglish" Evelyn is so good natured that one could almost believe that it was Deborah that drove her mother towards the bottle. Another highlight in this movie is Cristina's translations of conversations between her mother and John. Not only does Cristina translate the words and the passion of Flor, but also the gestures and so we get a bit of perfect physical comedy with a younger girl saying very adult things.

The only real problem with "Spanglish" is that despite the strength of all of its parts, the film itself doesn't come together to make a whole that is nearly as good. We have a film about several wonderful characters working through their problems, but it doesn't amount to very much. I can't explain it. "Spanglish" is a nice movie, a decent movie and is filled with a certain amount of heartwarming material, but perhaps because of Deborah and the conclusion, it never really delivers the promise or the pedigree of the filmmakers. Grade: B-

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