Spanglish


By most accounts, people are having a tough time accepting Téa Leoni’s character in “Spanglish” and her utter lack of redeeming qualities. Furthermore, many wonder why Adam Sandler’s character stands by her in spite of all her self-centered tantrums. I’ll offer my 2 cents. The way I see it, John Clansky (Sandler) is the kind of guy who’s never been all that smooth with the ladies. He’s a nice guy, good looking enough, he might be the best chef in the United States, but it takes everything for him to hang out with a girl without ruining everything. For guys like that, finding a woman at all willing to not only hang out but spend her life with you, that’s extraordinary. You’re set. No more loneliness, no more dating, no more awkwardness… If your wife turns out to be a crazy bitch, well, nobody’s perfect. And if you’ve got kids as well…

But I’m skipping ahead here. The movie is about dysfunctional rich white folks, but as seen through the eyes of their Mexican maid Flor (Paz Vega) and her rapidly Californiazing daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce). When she’s hired by the Clanskys, Flor doesn’t even speak English, but she can still see that things aren’t going well. Former career woman now downsized into full-time mom –gulp- Deborah (Leoni) is a neurotic wreck, over-dieted and over-exercised. Husband John takes it all in with infinite patience and calm, and he’s also there to reassure son Georgie (Ian Hyland) and daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele) that they’re ok, even if their mother is always mad at them. And then there’s grandma Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), a former jazz singer who’s always drunk but might still see more clearly through the family’s tensions than anyone.

To summarize the film’s plot is nearly impossible, because it’s more like a series of subplots that don’t add up to a consistent thematic thread. There’s an “Imitation of Life” sorta thing with Flor’s daughter wanting to dismiss her heritage to have the affluent lifestyle offered by Deborah, who’s being inconsiderate of her own daughter. Then there’s the four-star review John’s restaurant gets, making him worry the success will spoil the dynamics of his kitchen. Back at home, his wife’s antics is starting to wear on him and with Flor being so charming and understanding and…

So you got all these little things that are quite often cute, funny or even touching, but it’s just a bunch of nice little moments. There’s no overlying sense of connection between the events, and the characters remain rather one-note: the nice-guy husband, the crazy wife, the drunk grandmother, the saintly maid, the smart-ass kids… It says a lot about the cast’s quality that they manage to keep this mess of storytelling mostly engaging anyway. The father-daughter stuff is especially good, as are the interaction between Flor and her daughter and, somewhat unexpectedly, the relationship between Deborah and Evelyn.

The film’s major problem is its unevenness. There are some big laughs (“Do you really think that cupping my breast is gonna solve the issue?” “It’s worked before!”), but other attempts at humor fall flat. The same goes dramatically: there are individual scenes that are moving, but others ring false and overall the film feels superficial and scattered. It’s as if you were watching 4 random episodes of SPANGLISH – The Sitcom. We can understand and enjoy the parts we’re seeing, but there’s still a sense that we’re missing whole stretches. Then there’s the sometimes shockingly inept cinematography (the car scenes are particularly awfully shot), the clumsy narrative device of having Cristina’s application essay to Princeton be about that year with the Clanskys…

Then again, I personally applaud Leoni for not being afraid to embarrass herself for laughs and truth, too. People do have nervous breakdowns, you know, and it’s generally not pretty. Sandler makes good on the promise of his Punch-Drunk Love performance and shows incredible humanity and warmth, Paz Vega charms despite (because of?) the language barrier, and the child actors are great as well. As for Cloris Leachman, she’s given the film’s most insightful and funny dialogue and she knocks it out of the park every time.

“Spanglish” is hardly worth a trip to the multiplex, but you might wanna check it out on DVD. In fact, its sitcomish vibe will probably work better on the small screen.