- Spanglish (2004) movie review: In spite of a unexpectedly low-key Adam Sandler, veteran Cloris Leachman’s scene-stealing comedic turn, and director-screenwriter James L. Brooks’ boundless good intentions, this socially conscious romantic comedy-drama is just the latest example of Hollywood phony.
Spanglish movie review: Adam Sandler is surprisingly effective in Hollywood exemplar of well-intentioned dishonestidad*
Written and directed by multiple Academy Award and Emmy winner James L. Brooks, the socially conscious romantic comedy-drama Spanglish offers the filmmaker’s take on ethnocultural relations in the affluent sections of the American Southwest.
Although the film’s basic concept of social ascendance by means of love and marriage is hardly revolutionary – think the centuries-old Cinderella and stage and/or screen modern-day variations like Sabrina (1954 & 1995), Pretty Woman, etc. – it can be compelling enough to result in reliable entertainment.
The problem with Spanglish is that Brooks’ well-intentioned sitcom with magical fairy-tale pretensions is a misfire on nearly all counts: It’s too self-satisfied to be socially aware, too artificial to be romantic, too conventional to be funny, and too timid to be dramatically effective.
In all, Spanglish is no different than generally well-regarded and commercially successful James L. Brooks efforts like the Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment, and the Oscar-nominated Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets: Movies (especially the latter two) mostly devoid of characters, dialogue, and situations that have any resemblance to the real world.
Down & dysfunctional in Beverly Hills
Spanglish stars Spanish actress Paz Vega (Sex and Lucia, Talk to Her) as Flor, the white, monolingual, supermodel-looking undocumented Mexican immigrant and single mother who is hired as a maid at the home of a rich & dysfunctional – and, being wealthy Americans, white – Beverly Hills family.
Adam Sandler and Téa Leoni are Flor’s employers, the Anglophone Claskys: John, a successful chef, and Deborah, a former businesswoman now downgraded to stay-at-home momhood.
The former is a laidback type who spends his time avoiding conflicts with his increasingly high-strung wife, whose energies are directed at making her daughter (Sarah Steele) feel miserable about her body and her existence in general.
Things begin to go off the rails when Deborah becomes attached to Flor’s bilingual daughter (Shelbie Bruce) while John, realizing that love and lust do indeed cross cultural, social, and linguistic barriers, becomes attached to Flor herself.
Mexicans know best
Flirting with Disaster and Jurassic Park III actress Téa Leoni has her own brand of thespian appeal, but as Spanglish’s neurotic wife and mother she overacts to such an extent that it feels like she’s in a movie all by herself. Her unhappy, frustrated character is thus reduced to a pathetic and mean-spirited caricature of a “liberated woman” – one who has no understanding of the meaning of either personal freedom or personal responsibility.
Paz Vega’s Mexican immigrant, on the other hand, serves as a healthy contrast to the maladjusted American(s). A slave to the traditional mores of her country – at least according to Hollywood films that portray modern-day Mexico and Mexicans as if their sense of values were still stuck in the 1950s – Vega’s maid turns out to be the wisest and most ethical of the film’s characters. And such a caliente Latin mama to boot.
If the previous line sounds condescending, that’s because it is – much like Spanglish itself. James L. Brooks pretends to be open minded about sociocultural differences and relations while reinforcing every cliché and stereotype at his disposal, in both English and Spanish.
Personable Adam Sandler + show-stealer Cloris Leachman
On the positive side, Adam Sandler – who has become a movie star thanks to a series of brainless comedies pandering to the lowest-common-denominator crowd – comes across as a low-key, surprisingly personable romantic lead.
Replacing veteran Best Actress Oscar winner Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker, 1962), forced to bow out due to illness, another veteran Oscar winner, Cloris Leachman (Best Supporting Actress for The Last Picture Show, 1971), for her part, does an outstanding comedic turn as Deborah’s mother, a witty, altruistic dipsomaniac on the mend.
Yet despite Sandler’s agreeable screen presence and Leachman’s scene-stealing performance – not to mention James L. Brooks’ boundless sympathy for the underdog – Spanglish, like the filmmaker’s previous Academy-, critic-, and audience-pleasing efforts, is ultimately no more than the latest example of Hollywood dishonestidad.*
* In case you’re wondering, that’s dishonesty + deshonestidad (with an “e”).
Direction & Screenplay: James L. Brooks.
Cast: Adam Sandler. Téa Leoni. Paz Vega. Cloris Leachman. Shelbie Bruce. Sarah Steele. Ian Hyland. Cecilia Suárez. Thomas Haden Church.
Narrator: Aimee Garcia.
“Spanglish Movie (2004) Review” notes
James L. Brooks’ Oscars & Emmys
Most of Brooks’ Emmys have been for his role as a creator of the animated series The Simpsons. Other wins, whether as producer or writer, were for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and The Tracey Ullman Show.
Spanglish actress Cloris Leachman was featured in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and starred in one of its spin-offs, Phyllis, which earned her a Golden Globe at the 1976 ceremony.
“Spanglish Movie” endnotes
Cloris Leachman, James L. Brooks, Paz Vega, and Adam Sandler Spanglish movie images: Columbia Pictures.
“Spanglish Movie: Surprising Sandler in Condescending Romcom” last updated in September 2021.