"Spanglish," from movie maestro James L. Brooks ("Broadcast News," "As Good As It Gets"), is a light holiday treat. It's not a fabulous film, but a good one. It delivers some genuine laughs and much to ponder about family life.
Paz Vega and Adam Sandler (Columbia)
Adam Sandler plays John Clasky, a chef whose star is on the rise. His mild manners are offset, however, by those of his wife, Deb, played to the hilt by Tea Leoni. She flits to and fro, aggravating John and their two children, especially the adolescent Bernice (Sarah Steele), whose good heart must persevere through a mother's comments about weight.
As the movie begins, Deb has just transitioned from the work force to full-time, stay-at-home status, and the change obviously doesn't suit her. She wants to hire some domestic help, and that's when Flor (Paz Vego) enters the scene.
Flor, who doesn't speak English, takes the job and brings some much-needed joy to the Clasky clan, which also features Deb's mother, Evelyn, played oh so beautifully by Cloris Leachman in what should amount to an Oscar nomination.
But Flor, and eventually her 12-year-old daughter, also bring new problems for the Claskys. The ensuing complications are varied: spousal strife, generational conflict, intercultural misunderstanding. It's fun to watch, even when the story isn't as focused as one might like.
"When people exist under one roof," one character says, "a tiny society forms." In the movie's little society, civil strife is unavoidable.
What everyone wants, however, is to be understood. "Spanglish" uses an obvious language and cultural barrier to point up how misunderstandings—not maliciousness—account for many of our problems. Brooks takes the next step and unpeels, like only he can, the misunderstandings that plague our everyday relationships.
"Spanglish" heaps one outstanding performance on another. Sandler and Leoni, in addition to Leachman, are terrific. Though Sandler is best known for his juvenile comedy, here he adeptly portrays a good man in an oftentimes bad situation. Leoni plays her manic character perfectly, though some missing backstory for that character accounts for part of the movie's disappointment.
Moviegoers who enjoy pondering communication's pitfalls will appreciate "Spanglish" for its nuanced and textured treatment of this basic life skill. "Spanglish" isn't "As Good As It Gets," but it's good nonetheless.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content and brief language. Reviewer's Note: A sex scene between husband and wife is a bit frank.
Director: James L. Brooks
Writer: James L. Brooks
Cast: John Clasky: Adam Sandler; Deb Clasky: Tea Leoni; Flor: Paz Vega; Evelyn: Cloris Leachman; Cristina: Shelbie Bruce; Bernice: Sarah Steele; Georgia: Ian Hyland.
The movie's official Web site is here.