Sony // 2004 // 131 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // May 16th, 2005
A comedy with a language all its own.
James L. Brooks hasn't directed anything since As Good as it Gets in 1997, a comedy that lived up to its name. Spanglish is a worthy follow-up to that project, with a fantastic script and deserving performances. It was well worth the wait, and has a place in many a DVD collection.
The lives of a Mexican woman named Flor (Paz Vega, Talk to Her) and her daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) are turned upside down when Flor's husband leaves them. Heartbroken, Flor takes Cristina to Los Angeles, where her daughter will have more opportunities. After several years, Flor is forced into American culture when she becomes a housekeeper for the wealthy Clasky family. John (Adam Sandler, Punch-Drunk Love) is a skilled chef who loves his family, but struggles to deal with his truly messed up wife, Deborah (Téa Leone, The Family Man). Her issues have a major impact on the rest of the Clasky family, and everything gets even more challenging when Cristina is invited to stay with the Claskys for the summer. Will Flor be able to keep Cristina from becoming Americanized?
At first glance, Spanglish seems to be about the immigrant experience. It follows the lives of two Mexican women that have come to America. In truth, only part of the film is about them. Flor and Cristina are strong characters who struggle to understand and negotiate with a completely new world. Flor's desire for success and the continuation of her identity as a Mexican woman is fascinating, and she approaches the issues of immigration in a completely fresh way. The real focus of the film is on the Clasky family, though. We see this dysfunctional family through Flor's eyes, which forces us to think about our own culture in a new light. John and Deborah use money and material goods to placate and manipulate their family members. Deborah thinks about everything in material terms, which has alienated her from the other members of her family. She is also the most selfish woman on the face of the earth. John is trying to change the way he thinks and communicates, but patterns in his own life and in the rest of society make it difficult for him.
When Cristina gets mixed up with the Clasky family, the oddities of our culture really come to the fore. Cristina is immediately drawn to the wealth of the American family, and is pleased when she is brought in and treated like a daughter. It's not the affection that she enjoys, but rather the lavish gifts that are tossed her way. Her own beauty is the reason for this affection, which leaves the Clasky's real daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele) sharply aware of her own lack of value as the slightly overweight, braces-wearing teenager.
The material wealth of the Clasky family is not the only source of power in the film. Flor eventually learns that much of her power is stripped by not knowing English, and her English studies allow her to take charge of her situation. Her learning of English empowers her, but also affects her judgment. North American values are such a corrupting influence that all of the characters risk losing their values and their relationships.
It's hard to mix comedy and drama well. Comedic moments can undermine the human elements of the story, and if things get too serious, the moments of humor become tacky. Spanglish uses drama and comedy to enhance each other throughout. This balance comes from a fantastic script that contains a wealth of delightful scenes. Although the movie runs long and runs out of steam by the end, I can see why James L. Brooks had such a hard time chopping it down. There is a sequence where Cristina, who has loyalty to her mother but loves the connection she has with the Clasky family, has to translate an argument between Flor and John. The result is brilliant, because it captures the humor of the language barrier, while also highlighting how torn Cristina is between these two influences in her life. The film is full of scenes like this, and I doubt I would have been able to pass them up either.
A good script is worthless unless you have good actors to deliver the lines well. Although Adam Sandler has top billing here, the real star is Paz Vega, who didn't understand English herself when brought into the project. Flor is beautiful and unapproachable, both fierce and vulnerable, always able to hit the exact right notes. Her performance is reflected well by Shelbie Bruce, who gives Cristina a character that is both mature for her age and far too innocent to be tossed in with the Clasky family. As for Adam Sandler, I don't know who kidnapped him and replaced him with a good actor, but I really like the change. If he keeps on choosing roles that are as complex and likable as John Clasky, he could become as well-respected as he is popular. Téa Leone has a wonderful character arc, starting out as a goofy caricature but quickly proving Deborah to be selfish and vindictive, yet ultimately vulnerable. Sarah Steele and Cloris Leachman round out the cast and deliver funny, true performances.
The special features reflect the style and strengths of Spanglish. A commentary track with James L. Brooks, Richard Marks, and Tia Nolan is full of good explanations and fun anecdotes. Even better is the collection of twelve scenes that weren't in the film. They aren't called deleted scenes, but additional scenes. The label reflects the quality of these scenes, any of which could have fit well into the finished product. It was probably good that these did get removed for time, but watching them deepens the characters and closes off some of the loose plot threads. An HBO First Look featurette sells the film with interviews and footage. The sandwich featurette is pretty cool, showing the chefs that taught Adam Sandler how to do his stuff. There are casting sessions with optional commentary along with a shooting script on DVD-ROM. The featurette excepted, these extras do a good job of highlighting the script and performances, which are the best features of the film.
The main weakness of Spanglish is its emphasis on the American family. Cristina, the narrator of the film, is overshadowed by the zaniness of the Clasky family. Even Flor seems like a passive observer, deeply affected by her contact with wealthy America but unable to bring any positive changes to the situation. Her power comes from conformity, not the values that she brings from another place. This turns around a little at the end, but the resolution of the main story seems small after the emotionally explosive climax of the Clasky side plot. The stronger, but less important, story carries most of the weight, and we still don't get a clear look at the immigrant experience.
As with so many of Sony's DVDs, Spanglish has enough crammed onto the single disc that the video transfer suffers. It has a sharp image transferred from a good high-definition master, but it has been compressed too much, which causes graininess and bleeding. Other studios might have made this a two-disc special edition, given the film the transfer it deserves, and placed the extras on a separate disc. I guess we should wait for the inevitable double dip; maybe they will get the transfer right then. The sound is much better, featuring a dialogue- and music-heavy mix that never calls attention to itself, but does the job right.
Spanglish isn't the best film of the year. I'm not even sure it rates in the top ten. It doesn't try to change the world or do anything new. For casual, popular Hollywood entertainment, though, it's solid gold. It hits all the right notes, offers plenty of good laughs, accurately captures the emotions of its characters, and delivers a heartfelt message of hope to a greedy, selfish, materialistic culture. Not Oscar worthy perhaps, but still well worth watching.
Guilty? Absolutamente no.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Casting Sessions
* Sandwich Featurette
* Production Featurette
* Shooting Script