In 10 Words or Less
When bad things happen to good people...
Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey, and to a lesser extent Robin Williams and Ben Affleck, will suffer unnecessarily for the rest of their careers for the sin of attempting to entertain people by giving them what they want. (Williams and Affleck to a lesser extent due to their frequent inabilities to pick scripts.) Sandler creates stupid formula comedies like Mr. Deeds and critics cry for something original or different. He tries to do that in Punch Drunk Love and the critics tell him to go back to the comedy ghetto. He can't win, because he was so successful in his man-child persona.
Thus, when he takes on a role like John Clasky, super suburban chef and all-around good guy, he's only asking for the stings of critics' pens and a lower gross at the box office. One hopes that comic actors like Sandler and Carrey aren't disheartened by such reactions, otherwise we will lose interesting films like Punch Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Here, he is the married version of the tightly-coiled Barry Egan (Punch Drunk Love), tempered by family life, but still seething underneath his skin because of stress and slights. But like the manic Egan, he has a tremendous amount of love in him, which he focuses squarely on his children, praising them every chance he gets.
That's a very good thing, since their mom isn't likely to provide much in the way of positive reinforcement. Deborah (Tea Leoni) is that horrible modern monster known as the career woman. Rejecting much more honorable opportunities like motherhood and being a wife, she embraces, as George Carlin once put it, "pointless careerism." So when she loses her career due to downsizing, she is "reduced" to only a mother of two and the wife of a very successful man. This doesn't sit well with her, and she makes sure that if she's going to be miserable, so will her entire family, a goal she accomplishes by ignoring her son, subtle jabbing at her daughter's weight and generally making her husband insane though a mix of mental moodswings and illogical statements.
This could have gone on for some time, but the Claskys aren't really the center of the story. That honor goes to Flor (Paz Vega, Sex and Lucia) and her daughter Christina (first time actress Shelbie Bruce), who, as immigrants from Mexico, are trying to make their way in the world. Flor doesn't speak a lick of English, sticking close to her roots, while Christina is bilingual, watching the American way of life from an arm's length away. So when Flor takes a job as the Claskys' housemaid, Christina is brought along for the ride, acting as an interpreter for her mother (and the audience, as there are no subtitles for the plentiful Spanish dialogue.) She also becomes the fulcrum for the film's plot, representing the assimilation dance that resulted in the language concept of Spanglish.
While John tries to love his kids, cope with his wife and deny his overwhelming success at his restaurant, Flor is attempting to protect her daughter from harmful influences. That means they share a common foe in Deborah, who decided to, in so many words, give up on her daughter, and take on the adorable Christina as an adopted project. This doesn't go over well with Flor, though somehow Deb's daughter Bernie (played with infinite sweetness by newcomer Sarah Steele) doesn't seem to really mind. Perhaps it's the joy of being out of her mother's focus, or perhaps it's thanks to emotional calluses built up over time, but Bernie watches with detached amusement as her mother sets off on another parental misadventure.
Though on first look Spanglish seems like a romantic comedy, it's really a war movie. Whether it's the class war between Flor and Deborah, the gender war fought by Deb and...well, everyone, the culture war between Flor and...well, everyone, or the generational war between Deb (sense a trend?) and her lush of a mother (played with excellence by Cloris Leachman), the film seems to be a series of conflicts that can't be solved, and instead pile up until they get too big to ignore. When they finally reach critical mass, these conflicts are darker than one might expect, and hearts will be broken as they are confronted. For those who need it, don't expect a pat ending to this film. It would be too much of a cheat to take the audience so deep into this family and then change the channel to "Leave it to Beaver."
One of the best, and biggest surprises is the star turn on the part of Bruce, who is fantastic as Christina. The talk at the time of the film's release was Vega, who combines the look of a Spanish Winona Ryder with Salma Hayek's accent, but it's Bruce who steals the show. Her bravura scene comes as she translates a fight between her mother and John, who are arguing over money he paid Christina to collect beach glass. Seeing it as a pity gift and an attempt to buy her daughter's affections, Flor is livid, and Bruce stays with her every step of the way, mimicking Flor's movement and voice. It's impressive, but it reaches a new level when she takes the other side of the fight, and translates John's argument. Watching her seamlessly slide between the imitations is a true treat. The same can be said for this latest example of James L. Brook's magical ability behind the camera.
Spanglish has been released on one DVD, packaged in the usual keepcase, with a promotional insert (read: no chapter-stop list). The anamorphic, widescreen main menu has some slight animation, while there is a bit of animation between each subsequent menu, using footage from the film. Options on the main menu include play movie, scene selections, special features, and, appropriately, languages. The film is closed captioned, with English and French Dolby 5.1 tracks, and English and French subtitles. The scene selection menus have still previews and titles for each scene.
The DVD's anamorphic widescreen image is top notch, with excellent color and a high level of fine detail. The movie moves between the lighting extremes of the clean kitchen, bright summer house and nighttime beach, yet doesn't suffer for it, as there is no indication of compression errors or pixilation. Blacks are exceptional, and there's not a bit of dirt, damage or excessive grain.
Presented in Dolby 5.1, the audio is good, but nothing too taxing for your surround system. There's some use of the surround speakers to build ambient sound in the film, and in making the soundtrack deeper, but with a dialogue-heavy comedy they don't get much work. The dialogue is crystal clear and center-speaker based.
Brooks was very involved in the production of Spanglish's special features, providing commentary or narration for each extra. The most obvious and in-depth extra, the feature-length audio commentary, also includes editors Richard Marks and Tia Nolan. The track isn't very conversational, as Brooks dominates with his very confident speaking style, but it is friendly, with Marks and Nolan throwing in their comments here and there. At 131 minutes, it's understandable that there are some spots of dead air, mostly toward the end of the film, but for the most part, Brooks keeps things active and interesting.
12 additional scenes are included that can be viewed separately in letterboxed widescreen, or all at once with commentary by Brooks and his editors. If the "play all" option is selected, the writer/director sets up the 30 minutes of deleted or extended scenes with an audio intro over a montage of shots. When it strikes them, the trio discuss why scenes were cut or why it was tough to cut them. In a nice touch, the commentary isn't affected by the length of the scene, as the screen fades to black if they have more to say.
A decent 13-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, "HBO First Look: The Making of Spanglish" looks at the production, covering the usual angles, including Brooks' style of directing. More making-of info is included in the casting sessions with three of the kids and Vega. Brooks provides an optional commentary that explains the backstory for each choice.
This is a bit of a personal aside, but after watching the film and drying my wife's tears, we watched the featurette "How to Make the World's Greatest Sandwich Featuring Thomas Keller." Keller, a well-known chef, teaches Sandler how to make the late-night snack he eats in the film, a BLT with egg and cheese. Well, my wife loves to cook, and as I watched the deleted scenes, unbeknownst to me, she was making me the World's Greatest Sandwich, following the recipe provided on-screen after the featurette. It is indeed a fantastic sandwich. The World's Greatest? I don't know, but it's certainly up there.
Rounding out the DVD extras are six previews: Bewitched, Guess Who, House of Flying Daggers, Something's Gotta Give, As Good As It Gets, Silverado, while the Spanglish shooting script is available in PDF format when the disc is placed in a DVD-Rom drive.
The Bottom Line
Checking in at over two hours, Spanglish runs a bit long, but there aren't any obvious dead spots where you could go in with scissors and trim. With two families, multiple relationships and enough household drama to buy a therapist a new yacht, there's just too much story to tell in the usual 90 minutes. In James L. Brooks' capable hands, the story finds its way to an acceptable conclusion, even if it's not what the audience might want. The DVD provides plenty of insight into the movie and its production, as well as a nice bit of real-world context in Keller's sandwich recipe. This is a great couple movie, because there's a bit of everything at work. Sandler ties together a very diverse and talented cast to make a touching family drama with just enough laughs to prevent it from being too heavy. Look past any biases you might have and you'll enjoy it.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.