Tuesday, February 24, 2009


"Spanglish" (James L. Brooks, 2004) I think it's a case of worrying too much. Brooks has had a history of vivisecting his movies in the editing room—for example, he made a musical "I'll Do Anything" and during the editing stage removed all the songs. Here, he took out two crucial lines: one, to shorten the journey of Flor Moreno (the adorable Paz Vega) and her daughter Christina (Victoria Luna, growing into the amazing Shelbie Bruce) into America—originally they flew in with a pilot whom Flora was attracted to, but made a silent vow to never again get involved with irresponsible men (That scene is crucial, but it's not in the version released to theaters); the other is a scene where it's quite apparent that although they have a lot in common, the two protagonists in that scene come from distinctly different emotional cultures, and that what they share comes down to empathy, rather than love and that's an important statement to make. Again, it was cut out, making the film a bit more undefined and quite a bit more "safe" from controversy.

"Spanglish" probably takes enough chances that it made its makers very nervous. Brooks does extensive research, drenching his films in the worlds they inhabit and making them seem unconventional when their stories are actually quite in line with conventional wisdom. Brooks takes worlds spinning out of control and contains them, returns them to the status quo, achieving the normal or what will pass for normal.

Here, it is a Latina single mom, with no English to speak of, assimilating into a well-to-do dysfunctional Hell.A. family. He's a five-star cook who'd settle for three (Adam Sandler, nicely played*), and she's a hopeless neurotic (Téa Leoni, taking scary chances)—so self-aware she's oblivious to the havoc she creates around her. Leoni's neurotic California wife is the biggest risk in the movie, because she's an intelligent woman who has made herself as dumb as a stump, stuck in a loveless relationship with herself and trapped in a never-ending downward spiral of self-improvement. She's irritating as hell, mostly because the actress does not cut her any slack (you want to give her an award, then slap her upside the head with it). You can feel her self-absorption suck the feel-good out of the movie, but without her, it would go nowhere, and, frankly, it wouldn't be a convincing portrait of Los Angeles.

Rounding out the cast is
Cloris Leachman, who reminds of why she's such a talent and can mine worth out of badly written parts, but especially out of good ones. Again, Brooks does amazing work with kid-actors, and each of the youngsters in "Spanglish" are unconventional and scary-good. But there is one scene between Sandler, Vega, and Bruce that is as deftly played as any I've seen as it's a conversation between Sandler and Vega with Bruce translating. It's good conversation, too, done at top-speed and lots of sub-text that all three actors excell at. It's a classic scene all around showcasing optimal writing, direction and acting. Brooks is that good. He just needs to trust himself and his material.

The film got a bit of a critical drubbing, probably for the superficial reasons that it starred Adam Sandler (never a hallmark of quality up to that point in his career) and the Leoni character is such a train-wreck (that's the point, I believe) But despite that reputation and its poor box-office, "Spanglish" is one of those movies that "got away"—a love story where "love" has the best of intentions and is more in line with the old bilblical term "Charity."

* Although it's certainly not something to hold out as indicative of the entire performance, check out Sandler's "blind" perfect beer pour. It's one of those character details that displays something would wouldn't associate with the actor/comedian—discipline.

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