Spanglish: Movie & DVD Review (2004)

9/07/2007 Posted by Admin


(Originally published 2004)

Midway through James L. Brooks' “Spanglish,” it occurred to me how little oxygen there is in the movie. Nobody breathes here—they just exhale, scream, blather and sigh. And then they do it again. And then they do it again.

You can hardly blame them. Brooks obviously conceived, wrote and directed this phony dud with his head stuck in a cloud of ether, which likely accounts for the reason his film is such a dizzying mess and why his characters behave as stupidly as they do.

Take, for instance, Deborah Clasky, who is played here by Tea Leoni with the sort of hysterical, high-pitched shrill that suggests somebody here forgot their meds.

Deborah is one of the most irritating, isolating characters to hit theaters this year. Moody, mean and underhanded, she’s a selfish, castrating witch on a bender. With her relentless drive, she ridicules her daughter, Bernice (Sarah Steele), for being overweight; she patronizes her husband, John (Adam Sandler), for the sheer hell of it; and she has snubbed her mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), straight into alcoholism.

As a result, she makes for one miserable time at the movies.

Deborah’s whole being is focused solely on her own needs, and while her overbearing presence isn’t the only reason the movie fails, each time she enters the screen with her tantrums, her tears, her nasty scowl and her snotty nose, the movie sinks lower into a pit from which it can’t recover.

“Spanglish” is being sold as the story of a proud Mexican woman named Flor (Paz Vega) who comes illegally to the States with her daughter, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), and eventually finds work cleaning for the wealthy Claskys. Flor doesn’t speak English, but Cristina does, and between them, they survive well enough until Deborah starts to meddle.

That’s the real story we get. Deborah favors Cristina more than her own daughter--the sweet, likable Bernice--for reasons that are clear to everyone. Cristina is slim, smart, and conventionally pretty--the trophy child Deborah always wanted--and, my, doesn’t Deborah make a mess of things as her stronghold over Cristina tightens.

Toss into this mix a forced, passionless flirtation between John and Flor, which generates all the heat of a lima bean, and some sage observations about life from mother Evelyn, who has seen her share of worms at the bottom of a tequila bottle, and what you get isn’t Spanglish. It’s Manglish.

How a rich, successful, privileged white guy like Brooks (“Broadcast News,” “As Good as it Gets”) thought he could tell a story about what it’s like to be an illegal Mexican immigrant fighting the establishment to make a better life for herself and her child, isn’t just comprehension. It’s pure ego.

The one thing he does right here is the casting of Leachman, who is so good as Evelyn, so calm amid the ongoing clash of personalities, that she must be the reason the film is currently be pushed for awards consideration. In a better movie, Leachman might have had a shot for one of the supporting awards. But in this movie, which will turn off too many, her chances are as slim as Leoni’s high-strung performance.

Grade: D

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