`Spanglish' is too bitter, too sweet

Movie Review

December 17, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The masks of comedy and drama must be sporting huge black eyes after the beating each form takes in James L. Brooks' latest and limpest dramedy Spanglish.

Cross-cultural love wafts through the West Side L.A. air when a winsome Mexican single mother named Flor (Paz Vega) tends house for angelic super-chef John Clasky (Adam Sandler) and his self-absorbed wife, Deborah (Tea Leoni). But Brooks lacks the zest or guts to follow John and Flor's unruly intuitions.

As a romance, Spanglish is like a wholesome flirt who drags things out and becomes a tiresome tease.

As a satire of upper-middle-class Los Angeles, it's a disaster.

In this piece of middle-age wish-fulfillment - upper-middle-class, white male division - Brooks builds John and Flor's stop-and-go rapport with insidious effectiveness. John proves so devoted to his family despite his vile, petty wife that he signs away 20 percent of his restaurant to his right-hand man rather than cut into their quality time.

Flor pays as much attention to the Clasky kids, Bernice (Sarah Steele) and Georgie (Ian Hyland), as she does to her own daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce). Before she teaches herself English, she communicates with heartfelt glances, shoulder shrugs and head wags that are all the more irresistible for being unself-conscious.

You'd think that would be enough to clinch our allegiance to her character. But to get us really cheering for Flor and John's connection, Brooks never stops demonizing Deborah. This out-of-work professional woman lacks compassion and self-esteem. Even when she takes Cristina under her wing, and arranges for a scholarship at Bernice's upscale school, Deb's feathers have a noxious static cling.

Rush Limbaugh on Hillary Clinton isn't as nasty or over-the-top as Brooks is on Deborah Clasky. She projects her own inferiority complex onto chubby Bernice: she buys her daughter a bag full of chic under-size clothes to encourage weight loss. (Steele's mortified expressions provide the best acting in the movie.)

A constant, joyless exerciser, Deb keeps herself in too-taut shape: her trimness reflects a loss of all true appetites. In a slapstick bedroom sex scene, she doesn't moan with ecstasy but yelps like a strangling dog.

This isn't burlesque: it's character assassination. What's worse, it trashes Leoni, who brought gusto to an eroticized careerist in David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster and sanity and warmth to a domestic goddess in Brett Ratner's The Family Man. In what's intended to be Deb's one moment of grace, Cristina calls her the most amazing white woman she's ever met. But Cristina says it after Deb has "stolen" her without Flor's permission for a day of (what else?) shopping.

Astonishingly, despite so much obnoxious preparation, Brooks fails to treat Flor and John's flirtation as a rounded romantic comedy. He winds it down like an after-school special for adults. Of course, Sandler is hardly a prize romantic object, especially in his monotonously "sweet" mode. But Vega has enough emotional lift for the two of them. She genuinely is charming, and Brooks keeps nudging us to notice it. I think the reason he gives this tale its final, flattening twist is his wrongheaded notion of "maturity," which includes squelching authentic feelings to preserve a poisonous household unit.

Brooks has concocted a toast to the noble sexiness of parenthood - as embodied by a gorgeous, self-sacrificing Mexican single mom and a gifted, long-suffering American dad. And he's disguised it, none too well, as the sort of slice-of-cushy-life movie that Paul Mazursky used to pull off brilliantly.

In Mazursky movies like Blume in Love, characters act wantonly and loyally, generously and selfishly. Their confusions stem from appetites unleashed in haute-bourgeois settings so plush and permissive that no one can be fully trained to navigate them. By contrast, Deb's excuse for bad behavior is that her former jazz-singer mother was once promiscuous and is an alcoholic. (Cloris Leachman is blessedly dry in the role.)

Narrated by Cristina in lines from her college-admission essay for Princeton, Spanglish provides bold statements of the obvious. Its height of insight about culture clash? "To someone with firsthand knowledge of Latin machismo, [John] seemed to have the emotions of a Mexican ... woman." It's as subtle and not as funny as Flor's first look at a state-of-the-art home espresso machine.

Revelations about restaurants pop up here and there, but Brooks skews even practical lessons to demonstrate John's upright instincts. (For example, John wants to retain walk-in business to preserve a neighborhood feel.) Everything Deb does is unrelievedly robotic; everything John or Flor does is supposed to be humane. Spanglish is a melting pot movie that runneth over with equal amounts of bile and saccharine.

SUN SCORE 1 1/2 stars (*1/2)


Starring Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni, Paz Vega

Directed by James L. Brooks

Released by Sony

Rated PG-13

Time 128 minutes

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