Flor, a proud and attractive Mexican woman who speaks no English, moves to the United States with her daughter in search of a better life and ends up working for an upper-class Los Angeles family made up of oddball characters. The premise sounds like a bad sitcom pilot, but with writer/director James L. Brooks at the helm, “Spanglish” is made of stronger stuff.
Brooks ought to know something about sitcoms. He created the classic TV show “Taxi” and developed “The Simpsons” with Matt Groening. As a writer/director, he’s responsible for “Terms of Endearment,” “Broadcast News” and “As Good As It Gets.” Besides the common thread of being Oscar magnets, his movies also have inherently flawed characters at their core. And boy, does “Spanglish” have a doozy.
Deborah Clasky, played by the ferociously brave Tea Leoni, is one of the most unlikable and unredeemable movie moms in recent memory. Like Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets,” Deborah is a selfish mess who cannot control her own self-destructive neuroses. Although Nicholson was able to gradually reveal a softer side of his character’s harsh personality, Leoni is about as pliable as Deborah’s ridiculously firm abs. Her narcissistic personality serves to make everyone uncomfortable in any situation.
When Flor, played by the luminous Paz Vega, arrives at Deborah’s house for a job interview, her translator friend accidentally bloodies her nose on a glass door. While rushing for a towel to help her, Deborah also grabs a 20-dollar bill from a jar that is haphazardly stuffed full of bills, and apologizes, handing the cash to the woman as well, and finally adding, “Was that weird that I just gave you money?”
The housekeeping job is hers, and Flor soon realizes that this is just a small example of the family’s carefree spending habits and radically different lifestyle. When she and her daughter Christina (Aimee Garcia) are traveling to the Claskys’ summerhouse, Christina confesses she had never thought of the beach as someone’s private backyard. “Spanglish” is really the story of a determined mother who doesn’t want her child to lose her identity in a world of privilege. Flor is constantly battling the favor that Deborah heaps on her child and the discipline required to make sure that she doesn’t grow up like Deborah probably did.
If you think it’s strange I haven’t yet mentioned the big star of the picture, then you wouldn’t be the only one. Since the film is told through the eyes of Christina from the outset, Brooks withholds Adam Sandler until almost 15 minutes into “Spanglish.” He is perfectly suited to the part of long-suffering husband John Clasky, and plays him with the same inner disappointment and barely contained rage that he showed in “Punch-Drunk Love.” John may be the best chef in the country, but he still has no idea how to stand up for himself or, it seems, his children.
Brooks navigates this tricky terrain with some very funny moments. Deborah is so clueless to her own obnoxiousness that telling Flor she could make a fortune at surrogate pregnancy is her idea of a compliment. When John’s restaurant gets a great review in the newspaper and she finally gives him some attention, he and Deborah have the most hilarious one-sided sex scene I’ve ever seen. Cloris Leachman also lends some comic relief as Deborah’s alcoholic mother, a former torch singer who’s seen it all.
“Spanglish” explores Flor’s suffering through clenched teeth as she watches the Claskys take all that they have for granted. She’s an effective moral barometer for a film that—between Sandler’s droopy-dog attitude and Leoni’s mad and self-centered raving—desperately needs one. We root for her to succeed in keeping true to her own culture, and also providing our little lost white family with some much-needed encouragement and direction.
Ultimately, the movie is about respect and plays with the idea that maybe we don’t always want what others have, especially if we have to be like them to get it.