Spanglish (2004)

23 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

OK, what would you say if I told you that Adam Sandler starred in a movie that featured a family with a crazy member? You’d just say, “OK. So?” But what would you say if I told you that Adam Sandler does not play the crazy family member? That this movie is not a typical “Adam Sandler comedy,” but a James L. Brooks comedy-drama? “Spanglish” is that movie and it does star Adam Sandler. But Sandler plays a man who is trying to keep everything calm. His wife is played by Tea Leoni, and she isn’t just simply crazy—she shouldn’t even be living in a house with a relatively calm husband and two innocent kids. I feel sorry for those kids living in this household.

There’s a third major character in “Spanglish”—a quiet, sensitive Mexican woman named Flor (Paz Vega). Her husband has died, meaning she has to look after her daughter by herself. She leaves Mexico to live in America. To support her daughter (named Cristine), she goes to work for the Claskys, an American dysfunctional family. She is sucked into the drama that happens in this family. John (Sandler) is a chef who is named the Number One Chef in America, but really doesn’t want a lot of attention. His wife Deborah (Leoni) isn’t making life any easier for him. He is so “stark raving calm,” as Deborah puts it, and Deborah simply waves good-bye to reality as she goes cuckoo. She sounds so desperate about everything, stumbles over things, and has a bizarre sexual encounter (though this movie is rated PG-13). John and Deborah have two kids—one of which is teenaged Bernice (Sarah Steele).

Flor doesn’t speak fluent English (she only knows a few words), but she’s patient and tries her best to go along with this family. Complications arise when Deborah practically steals Flor’s daughter (who speaks fluent English) and takes her shopping. In a brilliant comic scene, Flor expresses her anger to John and asks Cristine to translate into English for her. The comic timing of Paz Vega and Shelbie Bruce (as the daughter) in that scene is just great.

A relationship builds slowly and tentatively between Flor and John. One of the movie’s finer things about it is that the relationship is so nicely developed. It doesn’t start quickly; it simply builds up to it. They spot each other on the street, say “hi” a few times at glances in the house, and have late-night chats after Flor is just learning to speak English. The chemistry between these two is convincing. Also, the relationship between Flor and Cristine as mother and daughter is handled quite nicely. I love the final scene they share together. Without giving too much away, it shows convincingly that all parents fear for their children’s futures. That scene is an excellent curtain-closer for this film, which is well-acted and powerful.

It’s nice to see Adam Sandler in this kind of relaxed performance. He’s a lot better as an actor when he isn’t manic, sadistic, or obsessive. Here, he’s restrained and gives a convincing performance as a guy who just things to be better. (After all, who doesn’t?) Tea Leoni is great at making her character not a monster, but rather an unfit parent and uptight klutz. You have to wonder if she took lessons from Adam Sandler’s previous films and brought more class to the character. Also, Paz Vega is wonderful here. One of the best things about “Spanglish” is that while she speaks Spanish (and she does speak fluent Spanish through the first hour of the film), she isn’t given English subtitles popping up on the screen for us to understand her. We don’t need subtitles. Her expressions and actions say it all. It’s a wonderful performance. Also delightful is Cloris Leachman as Deborah’s alcoholic mother. She starts out as a drunk and ends up being an actually wise person in the ways of relationships. I love the scene where she corners Deborah and warns her about what would happen if she keeps messing up.

“Spanglish” is an effective comedy-drama. This is not simply a sitcom featuring caricatures with phony problems. Real people have real problems. Relationships are complicated. Flor’s “fixing” of the family may not end the way we expect it to be. “Spanglish” is a nice movie with a terrific ensemble cast, a good script, and a good dose of comedy and drama. And after “Punch-Drunk Love,” this is further proof that Adam Sandler can handle serious roles well.

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