Despite not speaking a word of English, Latino housekeeper Flor (Vega) uproots her daughter Cristina (Bruce) to LA and is hired by Deborah Clasky (Leoni) to run her opulent household. Worried about Deborah’s influence over Cristina, Flor finds solace in Debs’ husband John (Sandler).
Taken individually, the movies which form the not-exactly-prolific output of James L. Brooks (in particular Terms Of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets) are object lessons in how to make smart, grown-up, awards-friendly entertainment. Taken as a whole, they form a coherent image of middle-class Americans, exposing their lives with compassion and intelligence. Spanglish is his first film in seven years, and while it doesn’t quite reach vintage Brooks, it didn’t deserve its Stateside critical drubbing, standing as a satisfying sample of his wordy, worldly wisdom.
Brooks’ background is in legendary sitcom (The Mary Tyler Moore Show , Rhoda, Taxi and latterly The Simpsons), and Spanglish’s premise of a poor Mexican nanny taken in by a wealthy LA family smacks of a Fresh Princess Of Bel-Air ‘high concept’. His storytelling achieves an engaging quality of being serious-yet-easygoing that gives the impression of a comedy, but Spanglish cares much more about humanity than humour, allowing both laughs and drama to emerge straight out of character rather than crowbarring in increasingly bathetic situations or contrived one-liners.
Brooks’ strongest suit is the originality of his writing, finding fresh spins on stock rom-dram scenarios. Late on, John is confronted with the highpoint of Debs’ neurosis and, rather than fall back on obvious histrionics or faux melodrama, Brooks takes the scene to a completely different place, as we see a man’s world quietly disintegrate around him. Another potentially obvious scene — in which Flor and John, holed up in a darkened restaurant, begin to discuss the reality of their feelings for each other — captures the genuine thrill of romantic realisation but filters it through a touching tentativeness.
Brooks really knows how to draw the best out of his casts. In a role that’s much more of a departure than Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler finds some of the likeable vulnerability of his characters in The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates but grounds it in something much more real, more soulful. Meanwhile, in what will undoubtedly be one of the more daring performances of the year, Téa Leoni goes full tilt as an unsympathetic, highly-strung wife, unintentionally hurting all around her — she’s the kind of mother who buys clothes a size too small for her heavy-set kid. Cloris Leachman has a blast as Debs’ booze-sodden, showtune-singing mother, and the two kids, Shelbie Bruce and Sarah Steele, ooze understated naturalism in every scene.
Yet the show belongs to Spanish actress Paz Vega, who finds quiet dignity in a mother trying to protect her daughter from the lure of LA. Flor’s burgeoning relationship with John is sweet and sexy, all furtive glances and late-night conversations, and Vega shines in a touching, terrific Brooksian set-piece, in which a heated argument erupts between John and Flor, requiring her daughter to rapidly translate back and forth, unconsciously mimicking the gestures and attitudes of each adult.
It’s not all plain sailing, though. While terrific with words, Brooks has never been big on images, the visual sense feeling obvious and monotone. Moreover, Hans Zimmer’s Mexican-tinged score reinforces emotional beats that didn’t need stating. Brooks may not unravel his tangle of themes — notions of femininity and masculinity, the dangers of assimilation, the difficulty of communication — but then, the mire and messiness of reality is where he loves to live and breathe.
A satisfying and grown-up flick that boasts all of James L. Brooks’ strengths. It’s good to welcome back a unique, low-key voice.
Reviewed by Ian Freer