James L. Brooks may be the best at what he does, turning slick sitcom story lines into engaging big-screen fare.
Brooks did it with "Broadcast News" and "As Good as It Gets," and he does it again with "Spanglish," a culture-clash comic drama that rises above a forced scenario to present a rich, warm view of family ties both strengthening and decaying.
And as in past films, Brooks coaxes career performances from his lead players, Tea Leoni and Adam Sandler, along with a sparkling U.S. debut for Spanish actress Paz Vega and a sharp supporting role for Cloris Leachman.
The first half of "Spanglish" feels almost cloyingly contrived at times, as writer-director Brooks spins his tale of beautiful Mexican immigrant Flor (Vega) trying to live among Americans without really being touched by the culture.
Yet the film builds in emotional resonance and dramatic weight. Unlike Brooks' past sitcommish flicks, "Spanglish" does not tie the action up neatly, instead leaving loose ends to ponder after the lights go up.
Flor's daughter, Cristina (played at age 12 by Shelbie Bruce), provides voice-overs from the future that frame the story, from their crossing into the United States through their contentious life with the Claskys, a white, affluent Los Angeles family.
Landing a job as the Claskys housekeeper, the xenophobic Flor is initially puzzled, later aghast, over her employers' behavior, particularly that of lady of the house Deborah (Leoni).
Newly downsized from her corporate job, Deborah is an overbearing, meddlesome dynamo of neuroses whose authoritarian exterior conceals deep self-doubt.
Her under-appreciated hubby, John (Sandler), is an ace chef and restaurant owner who so sanely balances work and home life that he becomes miserable when a four-star review sends demand through the roof at his business.
Deborah takes John for granted, harbors resentment toward her mother, Evelyn (Leachman), for a neglectful upbringing and deviously seeks to control her own two children, especially Bernice (Sarah Steele). Initially overjoyed when her mother brings home bags of cool new clothes for her, the chubby Bernice is crushed when she realizes the outfits are too small, Deborah's scheming way to encourage the girl to lose weight.
Appalled over Deborah's manipulations, Flor steps in to mother Bernice in her own way. Meanwhile, Deborah outrages Flor with her own attempts to play surrogate mom to the bright and earnest Cristina.
As "Spanglish" progresses, Leoni eases from shrillness to heartfelt pathos as Deborah's facade crumbles. Sandler's restrained, subtle performance is quite a surprise, while Leachman is delightful as the boozy grandma forced by circumstance to truly mother her grown daughter for the first time.
Performing largely in Spanish without subtitles, the luminous Vega beautifully crosses the language barrier, conveying Flor's fierce spirit through her animated body language, forceful delivery and piercing expressions.
Brooks' understated dialogue packs simple but pointed observations about self-regard and interpersonal relationships:
- "It's pretty wild to say something to somebody and have the other person concede the point," says John, Sandler's face registering genuine bewilderment over a little conversational triumph in a society where people don't like giving ground even when they know they're wrong.
- "Lately, your low self-esteem is just good common sense," Evelyn tells her wretchedly high-strung daughter.
- "Are you really that much nicer than me?" Deborah asks her husband. "Well, you don't set the bar real high," John replies.
Brooks' "Terms of Endearment" brought Academy Awards for Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson and "As Good as It Gets" earned Oscars for Nicholson and Helen Hunt.
Leoni, Leachman and possibly Vega could be in the Oscar hunt for "Spanglish," though Sandler will have to be content with decent reviews for a change. The odds that academy voters will go for the modern maestro of juvenile behavior are virtually nil.
"Spanglish," a Sony release, is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and brief language. Running time: 131 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.