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"SPANGLISH"
(2004) (Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: A Mexican immigrant tries to keep her young daughter on the straight and narrow when they move in to work for a rich but dysfunctional family that's run by the bipolar mother who's driving everyone crazy.
PLOT:
Flor (PAZ VEGA) is a single Mexican mother who's trying to raise her daughter, Cristina (SHELBIE BRUCE), as best as she can. Accordingly, she decides to immigrate to the U.S., but when she realizes that her two full-time jobs are compromising her efforts as a parent, Flor goes with her cousin Monica (CECILIA SUAREZ) for a job interview with Deborah Clasky (TÉA LEONI), a high-strung, former corporate woman who's been downsized to a stay-at-home mom.

Despite not speaking a word of English, Flor gets the job that includes taking care of Deborah's kids, Bernice (SARAH STEELE) and Georgie (IAN HYLAND). She also observes that Deborah's marriage to successful chef and restaurant owner John (ADAM SANDLER) is anything but ideal, a point that Deborah's alcoholic, live-in mother, Evelyn (CLORIS LEACHMAN), is quick to point out among her daughter's other faults.

Flor tries to do her job and keep to herself, but she's drawn further into the family's dysfunctional ways when Deborah insists that Flor and her daughter come and live with their family in their Malibu summer home. Flor reluctantly agrees and begins to learn English, but becomes uncomfortable by the way that Deborah has taken to Cristina as the favorite perfect daughter she never had. As that situation worsens along with Deborah and John's marriage, Flor must then figure out what's best for her and her daughter.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
In writing her application essay for Princeton, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) recalls herself as an adorable, precocious, bilingual 12-year-old. According to the essay, the person she admires most -- "no contest" -- is her mother, Flor (Paz Vega). In the extended flashback and narration that makes up "Spanglish," Flor appears resolute and highly ethical, qualities that help her survive as a maid for white folks in Bel Air. Though the Mexican-born Cristina at first believes that assimilating is the surest way to happiness in America, she soon learns that her mother's adamant, if discreet sense of detachment from their employers is indeed the healthier option.

As this too-familiar culture clash forms the basis of James L. Brooks' "sitcommy" movie, it's introduced by way of a few stereotypical moments: Flor's no-count husband leaves her while the child listens tearfully from another room; they emigrate to America (with suitcases in hand and by standard illegal entry); and they move into a barrio apartment with Flor's sister.

After working multiple jobs for years (and resolutely not learning English), Flor decides she needs one relatively well-paying job, to allow her the time to watch over her blossoming daughter. And so she starts working as the housekeeper for the Claskys -- mild-mannered chef John (Adam Sandler) and his unhappy, hyper-competitive, over-consuming wife Deborah (Téa Leoni). A one-time professional something, Deborah describes herself now as "a full time mom (gulp!)" who keeps a household that is "very loose and meticulous at the same time."

This household is filled out with Deborah's alcoholic, former singer mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), and two kids, the hardly overweight Bernice (Sarah Steele), the largely unnoticed Georgie (Ian Hyland), and a fetch-obsessed dog named Chum -- the sort of "dramedic" supporting cast that typically shows up in a James Brooks movie. Flor's position amongst these banal eccentrics is odiously indicated during her interview, when Deborah determines that she pronounces her name like "what I walk on, right?"

It's hard to imagine an employer any more obnoxious or willfully ignorant, and the film treats Deborah with conventional disdain -- she's the wife who doesn't understand, the needy rich lady who will never have enough. Every morning, she turns her jog up the hill to her home into a race, with whoever happens to be in the way ("Left!" she huffs as she scurries past); she disregards her children and resents John.

When she tries to pick a fight (insisting that he be "on the same page" with her when it comes to scolding the kids), and he offers an offhanded gesture in return, she confronts him immediately: "Do you really think that cupping my breast is going to resolve the issue here?" She could have been right about this, but "Spanglish" doesn't cut her a break: John is the inundated, long-suffering hero, Deborah's the culprit. When she hustles him into the bedroom for a quickie, he literally lies beneath her while she works herself to climax, looking dejected when she's done.

At first, Flor tries to keep her daughter separate from the white people, but eventually she agrees to bring her along to live with the Claskys on the beach for the summer. Cristina is delighted by the ocean, the games, and Deborah's interest in her: slim, polite, and bright, Cristina is not-Bernice, and so, a potential "project."

But when Deborah arranges for Cristina to attend a white prep school, Flor resists the potential loss of traditional values (self-respect, kindness) and immersion in a stereotypically crass materialism (demonstrated acutely when Cristina wants to watch "Charlie's Angels" with her new blond friends rather than attend a birthday party back in the barrio). It matters not to Cristina that the Claskys are crazy. Their affluence seems an end in itself.

Flor's misgivings are confirmed when she witnesses Deborah's effort to make Bernice fit into a set of new clothes, all sized too small. Equally bothered by Deborah's disparagement and her dad's inability to stand up for her, Flor takes action -- she spends a few hours altering the new wardrobe so Bernice can wear it.

On witnessing this bit of kindness, the girl is understandably smitten: here is a woman who accepts her as is. Similarly moved, John begins to see Flor as an antidote for his increasingly unmanageable, self-obsessed wife. His own frustrations lead him to focus on his restaurant (cursed with a four-star review, which to John means more hours and less "neighborhoody" warmth) and occasional tears that he tries to hide from Flor by wiping them on his seatbelt shoulder strap (much to her horror, as she has, notes Cristina, "firsthand knowledge of Latin machismo").

As John and Flor come to appreciate one another's vulnerabilities as well as strengths (apparently, he's a terrific chef, and happy to please her with his tasty dishes), they entertain the possibility of something more than their employer-employee relationship. With Cristina translating (and very capably -- Bruce is excellent), they lay out their complaints with one another. And then they make up. She admits to him (not to Deborah, who is incapable of civil speech with the help) that she's meddled with Bernice's upbringing, much as Deborah has meddled with Cristina's.

But the prospect of a romance for John and Flor remains alarming, and not just for its classism and harassment overtones. Equally troubling is the film's seeming comfort with the idea that John is the put-upon nice guy even as he contemplates lusting after the completely lovely, un-angular Flor, because you already know that Deborah is sleeping with an exceedingly seedy real estate agent (Thomas Haden Church).

As Deborah's behavior turns so disruptive as to incite her own mother's judgment ("Right now, your low self-esteem is starting to look like common sense"), the cultural, emotional, and political Other, as embodied by Flor, looks ever more enticing, a sane choice for the white guy.

While the movie resolves this dilemma by returning to its early focus on the working class mother-daughter relationship (see also: Helen Hunt and Jesse James in Brooks' last film, "As Good as it Gets"), it suggests that John is a better man for his newfound, passing interest, his distraction from the sameness of his own life. He's got an SUV, a swimming pool, and a career he loves. Flor, meanwhile, still has to ride the bus to work. "Spanglish" rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed December 10, 2004 / Posted December 17, 2004


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