starring Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, Paz Vega, Cloris Leachman
written and directed by James L. Brooks
by Walter Chaw Take a real close look at the two fertile women in James L. Brooks's Spanglish: one, Deborah (Téa Leoni), is a fright-masked, screeching harridan who resurrects all by herself the offense once implied by the term "hysterical," and the other, a fiery Latina clothed in soft browns named Flor (Paz Vega), is nurturing, reasonable, and maternal to the point of smothering her daughter. Which is the worse stereotype would be an interesting conversation to have; how the both of them torment John (Adam Sandler), the decent white guy hero (Deborah with outbursts, Flor with forbidden fruit), is a conversation not worth having. You expect a lot of things from a Brooks film: lethal levels of schmaltz, diarrheic streams of introspective dialogue, precocious tots--but you generally don't anticipate a lot of underdeveloped characters, a disquieting undercurrent of paternalistic racism, and one central personality apparently constructed for the sole purpose of being the lightning rod for the audience's every aggression. (Deborah is the most hellish--and consequently the most memorable--affront to rich white women I've seen since Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.) The only two interesting characters in the piece are Deborah's alcoholic mother Evelyn (Cloris Leachman) and chubby daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele)--not coincidentally, the two characters least like convenient pastiches. Frankly, the film should have been about them.
But alas, Spanglish is about expert chef John and his professional crazy person wife Deborah living the high life in L.A.'s jet-stream with Evelyn and their two kids, Bernie and Georgie (Ian Hyland). Deborah hires illegal immigrant Flor to act as nanny, housekeeper, and sociological counterpoint to the whining of the ruling elite. This of course leads to a lot of screaming and tears, recriminations and reunions, and an out-of-body experience in which one sees oneself flipping past this on the Lifetime Channel a few months from now. Flor is more than just the unsullied third world noble savage, however: she's also the catalyst for change in the lives of John and Deborah. You don't really need me to tell you this.
Spanglish wants you to root for John and Deborah and their diaphanous marriage, but it doesn't give us a reason to care. John is some sort of space cadet Buddhist hippie monster while Deborah is just a monster; John doesn't want a four-star rating for his restaurant because it'll make everybody too tense, and Deborah doesn't want to buy her daughter clothes that fit because she's sure that Bernie will one day be skinny enough to wear them. Flor, on the other hand, sacrifices everything for her daughter, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), but balks at the prospect of Cristina getting a scholarship to a prestigious private prep school lest she become, gasp, anglicized and assimilated into the culture to which Flor has chosen to merely attach herself, lamprey-like.
The picture hates the United States, it seems, attacking its arrogance, wealth, and neurosis--and in so hating, it champions the construction of segregated ghettos where there is neither requirement nor opportunity to advance beyond the level of subsistence wages and menial labour. What this offers Flor and her daughter is a life of servility to the people they disdain and abhor; Spanglish turns the tables on the white folks, see, winning one of those gay old pyrrhic, moral victories. The crackers are self-absorbed assholes living in Malibu, the Mexicans are of righteous stock, living in socio-economic prisons built by bricks and mortar cast entirely out of pride. For a film invested in the importance of family, Spanglish is extraordinarily nihilistic and misanthropic. Originally published: December 17, 2004.