Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni, Cloris Leachman, Sarah Steele
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
James L. Brooks
The latest film by James L. Brooks, "Spanglish" is a film that made me laugh, made me cry and made me leave the theater examining my own values, thoughts, ideas and loyalties around family, friendship and dreams.
The film stars Paz Vega as a young woman (Flor) who enters the United States illegally with her young daughter, lives a peaceful existence in a largely Hispanic area of Los Angeles until six years later when she becomes the housekeeper for the Clasky's (played by Tea Leoni and Adam Sandler) and their daughter (played by Sarah Steele) and their son (played by Ian Hyland).
"Spanglish" offers a narrative form of presentation that largely works...it is narrated by a 17-year-old Cristina, Flor's daughter. The narration is not intrusive and works because it is presented as a college admissions representative reading an applicant's admissions essay...it's a simple approach, but adds remarkably to the the film.
"Spanglish" is, in many ways, a typical Brooks film. It is filled with heartwarming, inspiring yet utterly frustrating characters with the best of intentions and the deepest of flaws.
Paz Vega is utterly brilliant as Flor, a stunning and beautiful young woman who was abandoned (fool!) by her husband in Mexico and yet completely lives for her daughter. Brooks does a wonderful job of incorporating Hispanic culture into this film, including the use of the Spanish language, without ever losing the audience. Vega's "Flor" is completely loyal to her daughter even when dealing with her own pride, her own hurt and her own fears. The scenes of Flor dealing with not knowing the English language are funny yet quite insightful. I find myself disheartened that Vega did not receive a Golden Globe nomination...this is a worthy performance.
As the Clasky's, Tea Leoni and Adam Sandler are a remarkable contrast and yet offer similarly wonderful performance. Leoni gets the greatest chance to shine as her character runs the gamut of emotions from the deepest of despair to the heights of frivolity. In many ways, Leoni offers the "spark" I never really found in Helen Hunt's "As Good as it Gets" performance.
Sandler, on the other hand, appears to offer a fairly dry performance and yet that is its brilliance. This may be Sandler's first truly "real" film role and he pulls it off. Even in "Punch-Drunk Love," Sandler could be over-the-top and exhibit some of his usual traits. He does none of that here. He's simply a frustrated, at times clueless, father and husband. Sandler's character is a brilliant, compassionate man but never really sees it.
As the Clasky's daughter, Sarah Steele offers one of the best teen performances of the year. This is, perhaps, due to the fact that she reminded me of a teenager that I actually know. Steele, with this as her first film, offers a heartbreaking performance as a young teen who so desperately wants parental approval and yet remains loyal to them as she is rejected time and again.
Finally, and not even yet mentioned here, is a performance that completely blew me away. Cloris Leachman, who hasn't really "acted" in years offers a tour-de-force supporting performance as Tea Leoni's mother, a formerly successful performer largely living on the glory of her past and the failures of her parenting. The last 30 minutes of the film are powerful reminders of the brilliance of Leachman. Once again, this should have been a "Best Supporting Actress" nomination from the Golden Globes.
"Spanglish" did receive a Golden Globe nomination for its Hans Zimmer score, which is the perfect accompaniment to the film.
I vacillated between an A- and a B+ for this film. Indeed, I was not completely happy with the script by James L. Brooks. The film occasionally takes the easy way out or is willing to fall into stereotypical responses...yet, every time this happens it seems to bounce back into a brilliant choice. For example, with such a beautiful woman and an utterly frustrated, insecure and lonely husband, the inevitablility of an affair seemed obvious. Clearly, Brooks allowed an "attraction" to develop...yet Brooks, in his wisdom, chose a different path (which I won't reveal). He approaches the idea, flirts heavily with the idea then makes the choice that left me going "Wow!."
I also found myself somewhat dissatisfied with the lack of resolution between mother and daughter...Leoni's character rejects her daughter throughout the film, and often turns her affection towards Vega's daughter (a beautiful young Hispanic girl)...while we can see the hurt of Leoni's daughter, this issue is never really explored. This added yet another level of hurt for Steele's character AND the hurt showed on her face...but, I wanted this hurt explored even more.
Finally, I found myself a bit unimpressed with the ending even though it was a dignified ending. Vega did, actually, make the "right" choice and the consistent choice regarding her daughter. Yet, I had grown to care significantly about these characters and I wanted to know more about their resolution. I also can't deny, however, that I've thought about the film much more since I left the theater because I find myself constantly wondering how they ended up.
On fun notes, even in a non-Sandler film Sandler manages to squeeze in an Allen Covert performance. I still find it remarkable that Covert doesn't act more...he's offered remarkably diverse and fun performances in Sandler films and is worthy of greater screen time. Additionally, the rented Malibu beach home that serves as the primary setting throughout much of the filming apparently had quite a bit of damage by the end of filming...the owner has currently sued filmmakers for $76,000 plus lost income over the damages.
"Spanglish" is, however, a character driven film and I truly found myself enchanted and caring about each of these characters. So, I find myself willing to forgive these script flaws and reward the film with an "A" range rating. While not a perfect film, and certainly not the best of Brooks, "Spanglish" is a wonderful film, highly entertaining and offers captivating performances by Vega, Leoni, Leachman, Sandler and Steele.
If you love the films of James L. Brooks, you will love "Spanglish." It is a smart, sensitive and entertaining comedy that deserves to be seen this holiday season with its messages of hope and family.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic