Director James L. Brooks works hard; in such films as Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as it Gets he’s laboring all the time to tickle your heartstrings and wring a tear from your funnybone. When it all comes together, that’s entertainment, buster. But with Spanglish, you get the feeling a whole other movie was left on the cutting-room floor.
It’s a shame, because the point this movie is trying to make turns out to be a good one: Parents should make sacrifices for their children, noble self-discipline is good, impulsive self-indulgence is bad, and breaking up a marriage, even a desperately unhappy marriage, is very bad. Unfortunately, it takes 90 minutes before this theme comes into focus, and by then you’ve been so battered by sitcom-style yuks and inexplicable character behavior that you just don’t care any more.
The film begins, disastrously, with a voiceover. It’s a teenaged girl, Cristina (Aimee Garcia), narrating the essay she wrote to accompany her application to Princeton. The most influential person in her life is (are you sitting down?) “my mom.” As we glimpse scenes of Cristina’s childhood in Mexico, then see her and her mom (Flor, played by lovely Paz Vega) drag wheeled brocade suitcases across the border, and then settle in the barrio, the perky voice goes on and on. At first I thought this might be elaborately ironic, but no such luck.
The first interesting thing that happens in the movie is Deborah Clasky (Tea Leoni), wife of superstar chef John (Adam Sandler). Flor, who speaks no English, goes to interview for a housekeeper job at Deb’s home, and the cousin who accompanies her to translate slams into the Clasky’s patio door. Deb flutters around her, bleached hair flying, as wiry and tense as Tom Cruise on speed, and erupts with nonsense: “I’m not mad,” she says to the dazed young woman with a nosebleed, then presses a $20 into her hand, then blurts, “Is it weird I gave you money? I felt bad.”
Deb is clearly a basket case. She’s been recently downsized and is bewildered about how to be a full-time mom. She’s a compulsive athlete, and doesn’t know how to cope with a daughter who is comfortable being plump (Bernice, played by Sarah Steele in braces and frizzies, radiating relaxation into the audience whenever she’s onscreen). Deb is on the brink of a breakdown, overflowing with self-hatred, and she’s the one person I was curious to know better. At the end of the film we get a single clue to her behavior: She says to her mom, retired chanteuse Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), “You were an alcoholic and a wildly promiscuous woman during my formative years, so that I am in this fix because of you.” Deb shows us how a selfish parent can screw a kid up, with effects even decades down the line.
Flor, on the other hand, has a spine like a steel poker. She is fiercely protective of Cristina, and does not even tell her employers that her daughter exists. When the family moves to a beach house for the summer, Flor is ready to quit rather than bring Cristina along. But Deb is taken with lovely Cristina right away, and treats her to clothes and a fun hairdo. This infuriates Flor. John tells the kids that he will pay them for sea glass they collect, and Cristina gathers several hundred dollars’ worth; when John pays her this, too, infuriates Flor. The final insult is when Deb arranges for Cristina to meet the director of an elite prep school and be given a $20,000 scholarship. Flor is spitting nails by this point. How low can you go?
Things come to a head when Deb tells John that she has been having an affair. She is wildly remorseful and frantic to salvage the marriage. John storms out, and meets up with Flor, and the two discover their mutual attraction. Yet they turn back at the brink; in one of the movie’s few genuine moments, the two are sitting on a banquette at John’s restaurant, and Flor begins to stand and leave. John stops her. “Once our feet touch that floor I’m going to get too many brain cells back. Don’t be in such a hurry. That floor is going to eat us alive.”
It’s an index of how vague this movie is that I end up repeating so much of the plot. Much time is wasted with TV-quality joking. Cinematography inclines toward garish close-ups, with characters looking unattractively shiny. A son, Georgie (Ian Hyland), is introduced and then disappears for virtually the entire film. Everybody fawns over Flor’s beauty, and she strikes poses so we can admire her; she looks like an irate heron, darting her head and widening her eyes. And just when you’d gotten over it, the voiceover returns, for no justifiable reason. I think there’s a good movie in here somewhere, and I expect it would center around the damaged and damaging Deb. What’s playing in your theaters instead is a misguided bicultural-romantic-comedy-coming-of-age-drama, which is several hyphens too many.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.