Starring: Adam Sandler, Ta Leoni, Cloris Leachman
Director: James L. Brooks
“Every family has a hero,” boasts the tagline for “Spanglish,” and that motto is conveniently plastered next to Adam Sandler’s average-Joe mug in the poster’s group shot. Both the poster and the tagline are misleading, though, for in this family, and this movie, multiple heroes emerge.
On the surface, director James L. Brooks’ first feature-length work since “As Good As It Gets” is about a clash of cultures. Penniless Mexican immigrant Flor Moreno (the luminous Paz Vega, in her English-language debut) is hired as housekeeper and caretaker for the wealthy Clasky family in Beverly Hills. With Flor speaking no English, and the Claskys speaking no Spanish, hilarity ensues -- right?
Wrong. What ensues is heartache, as Flor watches her bilingual, preteen daughter Cristina (played by Shelbie Bruce, in an appealing debut) slowly being seduced by the money, style and sophistication of her mother’s white employer. Said employer, Deborah Clasky -- played with fierce commitment by Tea Leoni, in her best work since “Flirting With Disaster” -- is actively doing the seducing, stealing Cristina away for afternoon shopping trips and salon visits without her mother’s permission, and neglecting her own family in the process.
Leoni is at her best when playing a character who is gorgeous, neurotic and troubled -- and Mrs. Clasky is all three. Beautiful and hard-bodied, yet desperately insecure; a sexual dynamo, yet completely indifferent to anyone’s feelings but her own, Leoni’s Deborah is a villain worth watching. Fiery Flor, wise to Deborah’s motives perhaps even before Deborah herself may be, is the antithesis of her employer: kind-hearted, loyal, and seemingly unaware of her own attractiveness.
Torn between these two women is Adam Sandler as John Clasky, Deb’s long-suffering husband, who is drawn to Flor but worries about the damage that following his heart would do to the rest of his family. Of particular concern is his daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele, refreshing as a teen at neither end of the attractiveness spectrum), who is in danger of gradually being beaten down by her mother’s casual cruelty, particularly if Dad is not there to act as a buffer.
Sandler demonstrates nuances not seen in many of his recent performances, and his scenes with Vega are nicely restrained. Their mutual attraction builds slowly, emerging only as quickly as Flor can learn English. It is based -- presumably on Flor’s part, at least -- not on physical lust, but on an appreciation of the beautiful personality housed inside one another. Indeed, John pays Flor perhaps one of the nicest compliments since Nicholson’s “You make me want to be a better man” speech in “As Good As It Gets” when he assumes that Flor must be a widow, “because that’s the only reason I can think of that any man would ever leave you.”
John and Flor struggle with their choices, but the film actually puts too much emphasis on their budding romance, at the expense of other key characters and storylines. Neither daughter gets the screen time she deserves, and Cloris Leachman is under-utilized as Deborah’s drunken, has-been pop-star mother, Evelyn. The presumable source of Deborah’s insecurities -- and potential source of salvation as well -- Evelyn gets most of the best lines, and steals every scene in which she appears.
For a movie that’s billed as a comedy, a romance and an Adam Sandler vehicle, Spanglish falls a bit short on all three. It has hilarious moments (Leoni’s chest-thumping sex scene, the best since “Jerry Maguire”; Evelyn’s remark that for Deb, “low self-esteem is just good common sense”), but is more dramatic than comedic on the whole. It has romantic moments, but the true love story in this film is the one between Flor and her daughter. It has Adam Sandler -- and he performs well here -- but the emphasis on his character serves to give the others short shrift.
“Spanglish” is a compelling movie just the same, but one that would have been stronger had the story’s other true heroes -- Bernice’s painfully average teen, who retains her sense of self despite her mother’s attacks; Evelyn’s redemption-seeking grandmother; Flor’s self-sacrificing protector -- been given their due.
The DVD release of "Spanglish” offers fans of the film a nice selection of special features, including a full-length audio commentary with writer/director James L. Brooks and crew, twelve deleted scenes, casting tapes, and the HBO First Look documentary "The Making of ‘Spanglish'." The best extra on the disc though, is the short featurette entitled "How to Make the World's Greatest Sandwich with Thomas Keller. While we only see the sandwich appear once throughout the entire film, one look at that heart-attack-causing breakfast BLT will have you hungry in no time. Finally, fans can access the film’s shooting script by sticking the disc into your computer’s DVD-ROM.