Spanglish (Review)

(7 out of 10)
Directed: James L. Brooks
Starring: Adam Sandler (John Clasky), Tea Leoni (Deborah Clasky), Paz Vega (Flor Moreno), Cloris Leachman (Evelyn Norwich) Shelbie Bruce (Christina), Sarah Steele (Bernie), Ian Hyland (Georgie)

Preview

I would recommend this film to most of you. Penny, Jill and Larri really liked the movie.

I think it’s one of the films I enjoyed it most this year (although it was a weak year for me). I think some critics have really slammed this film, and I understand some of the criticism, but I enjoyed it, nevertheless.

(Mitchell, now that I’ve seen this, I’m curious to know what’s the whole mystery behind your statement: “See this film?”)

There are some humorous moments, but this is mostly a melodramaóof the sort you would see in a good dramatic TV series. If you like well-executed melodramatic moments, I would recommend this film.

I liked this film better than As Good As It Gets because the characters and relationships convinced me more, but not as much as Broadcast News (for reasons I’ll go into in the review).

Review

I recently watched the first season of Six Feet Under. After the first couple of episodes, I got excited about the characters and relationships, and I liked the way the producers developed the characters and key relationships for most of the series. Towards the end of Spanglish, the thought occurred to me that these characters and their stories would be better suited for a TV series instead of a movie. Indeed, Spanglish feels like a TV pilot that crams everything in the first episode for fear that the series may not be picked up.

Like a good TV pilot, Spanglish introduces characters and relationships that make the viewer want to watch them develop. The characters are either instantly likeable or interesting. For example, Bernie (Steele) quickly won me over, and I wanted to know what would happen to her. Leoniís performance also intrigued me. Her character had an interesting mixture of traits: overbearing and aggressive, but at the same time decent, well-meaning, and insecure. Leoni brought good energy to this role, and seemed to combine these different traits in a believable way.

Brooks also introduces several different relationships that I was curious to see develop: the relationship between Bernie and her parents; Flor (Moreno) and Christina (Bruce), her daughter (and the comparison between these relationships); John (Sandler), Debbie and Flor; Debbie and Evelyn (Leachman), Debbieís mom.

The problem seemed to be that Brooks (and/or the others involved with making the film) did not know which characters or relationship to focus on, or he didn’t effectively balance them. (I think it was the latter.) Compare his good melodrama, Broadcast News. The film was clearly about three characters and the relationship between them. In Spanglish, I am not clear who the main characters are. I suspect the main characters are John, Debbie, and Flor but too many other characters and relationships kept competing for my attention, making the identification of the main characters difficult. I either wanted to know more about some of these characters and relationships, or I felt Brooks needed to develop them more for the purpose of the story, particularly the dramatic moments in the film. These problems donít exist in Broadcast News. Spanglish also tries to address cultural and socio-economic themes. Brooks seems to have had several options with this situation:

  1. focus on a few characters and relationships while ignoring or eliminating the others;
  2. make a TV series instead of a movie;
  3. deal with all the characters and relationships in a 6 hour film.

I think it is obvious that he chose the latter, except he had two hours to work with. The result is a film that starts with promising characters and relationships I wanted to see develop, but ends without fully developing them (like an episode in a TV show). This is my main complaint with the film.

Let me give you an example of this lack of focus. In the beginning of the film, I thought the movie would be about parent-child relationships, centering around the relationships between Flor and Christina and Debbie, John and Bernie. The story would address this relationship by holding these relationships side-by-side. (By the way, I wanted to know more about Bernie and the important relationships in her life more than I did Christina, even though the relationship between Christina and Flor seems more important. Brooks should have cast a less likeable Bernie.)

Later the focus shifts to a love triangle between John, Flor and Debbie. John comes into the movie and we seem him interact with Debbie and Bernie. He seems frustrated by the way Debbie treats Bernie. So what is there relationship like? How did they get together? And whatís the deal with their sex life? Before Brooks answers these questions, the film moves to John and Flor and their developing relationship. Their relationship develops around a similar commitment and feelings towards their daughters, which Brooks shows transcends gender and culture. Now I want to know what will happen to them.

To make room for this development Brooks pushes the Debbie character to the side, and when she re-emerges we see her as a cardboard villain: the cheating career woman. (Brooks also creates this gender reversal with the characters: Debbie behaves more like a man while John behaves more like a woman.) Brooks does offer any sympathetic reasons for her cheating or her disrespecting Flor and interfering with Christina. Any positive qualities or sympathetic reasons are shoved to the side.

The relationship between the children and their parents are totally swept to the side. Brooks does not give us any information of the relationship between children and parents. Once again making room from for the emerging love triangle and, the addition of Evelyn, Debbieís mom. Her character and her relationship with Debbie becomes prominent, coming out of the blue. Prior to the scene where Evelyn confronts Debbie about the affair, we know very little about her character or her relationship with Debbie. Like Debbie and her relationship with John, Brooks does not give us enough important details about their relationship. For example, we learn that Evelyn is happy about the sudden turmoil between Debbie and John because she can feel useful, and she always felt useless. Well, I just had to take her word for it as Brooks did not effectively establish or this in the beginning. At the time, I didnít really mind so much because she did a good jobódelivering some terrific lines in the process. I loved the line, ìThis time your low self-esteem is just common-sense.î With that line, and a gesture with her finger, she punctuated that scene. These scenes would have been more poignant if Brooks had established her character and her relationship to Debbie earlier in the film.

The emergence of Evelynís character leads up to the dramatic confrontation between John and Debbie. I have to just say that Brooks is really great at directing and writing these melodramatic moments. (He did the same thing in Broadcast News.) But like Leachmanís character, I didnít have important backstory information about Debbie, John and their relationship. We have no idea why this affair is happening, and that information provides a foundation for this scene. Still, I appreciated the scene because the writing and the direction impressed me so much. Brooks finds the right time to move the camera, and I just feel like he gets Sandler to provide some of his best acting ever. (More on Sandlerís acting later.)

I also enjoyed the following scene of John and Flor at his restaurant. But I must say I was confused by some parts of it. I either didnít catch a few words in the dialogue, or I couldnít understand what the characters were feeling or thinking. For example, when Flor says that it would have been a sin if she left without talking to him (I think thatís what she said), Johnís reactionógoing over, putting his arm around her shoulder and mumbling somethingóconfused me. I had similar feelings during the sofa sceneówhich I likedóbecause I could not read their facial expressions. Someone said that they thought the ambiguity was intentional, as the characters were confused. That is true, but there are times when the audience should feel their confusion and when they should have a better sense of the characterís feelings and thoughtsóor else the scene may not work so well.

While Sandler and Moreno performed adequately, I kept thinking about other actors for these roles, particularly Sandler (although I must admit the bedroom scene and the couch scene did dispel my misgivings about him.) You often hear how comedy is more difficult than drama, and therefore, we assume that comedians can play drama. Well, hereís an example that goes against that. Sandler is easy to like, and that aspect makes him suited for the role, but that was it (the role does not require comic skills). Earlier I mentioned a scene that confused me. Part of that may have been due to limitations of both actors. In other scenes between Sandler and Leoni, I could not read his reactions to Leoni. Was he irritated? Was there a love caused him to tolerate those weaknesses? I wasnít really sure. (To be fair, the director and writer may deserve some of the blame as they did not provide back-story.) How about Jeff Daniels in this role? Or better: Ed Norton. Norton could be tender with Bernie that would make him convincing as a devoted father (See Keeping the Faith) and he has the acting chops to hit home runs during those dramatic scenes. I don’t know many Hispanic actors, but I think Lumi Cavazos, the lead in Like Water for Chocolate would be ideal for this role. First of all, her English is not so good so she could convincingly play someone who just learned English. I think she has a quality that makes you like her quickly. Third, she is less voluptuous than Moreno, and would make a more believable housekeeper, as she did in Bottle Rocket. I think she has the acting to play the feisty scenes well as well as the scenes where she must restrain her feelings. I actually think she has star quality, and would make a good pairing with Ed Norton.

However, my criticism of the film does not mean I did not like it. I enjoyed the film and the melodramatic moments, but I thought the film could have been great if the direction and acting were better. Perhaps, some of those problems could have been worked out over the course of a TV series. Who know? Maybe Brooks wanted this film to serve as a pilot for a series.

4 Responses to “Spanglish (Review)”


  1. Marc

    I’ll chip in here, but it won’t be quite as lengthy as Reid’s comments. I think I can almost match his verbosity when talking about baseball though…

    I enjoyed the movie, and would rate it 7/10. I enjoyed the message that Brooks was getting across. I thought Paz Vega was terrific and also thought that Adam Sandler did a pretty good job of conveying the conflicts that he faced in trying to remain faithful to his wife while becoming enchanted by Flor. So in that way I disagree some with Reid.

    Now, some random comments:
    I how Flor refused to cry and taught that to Christina.

    I wish that Deborah was a fuller character and at least somewhat likable. Even her big confession and plea were driven by Mom and were kind of hard for me to swallow. There was very little reason to cheer for the marriage to stay intact. This may have made John and Flor’s choice more noble but a little too black and white for me. I wish there was more color there.

    I liked the vehicle of an admission essay to convey the story. I also liked the defiant tone that Christina takes at the end of the letter. If I couln’t be all that happy about the romance/marriage situation, I could be happy about how Christina seems to have turned out.

    I founds myself identifying with the rich kids and wanting to hang out in the pool all the time. Is that a comment on me?

    Enough of this.

  2. Reid

    Generally, I’m OK with the story of Flor and her daughter Christina, but the way Brooks treats them seems to be so pat and as one reviewer mentioned, “politically correct:” Evil upper-class white woman vs. sensitive and beautiful lower-class woman. In a way, it doesn’t respect the characters because they lack dimensions. That criticism didn’t stop me from enjoying the film, though.

    Do you agree that the story would work better in a TV series?

    I think Sandler and Moreno were OK, but I think they could have cast two better actors that would have taken the film to a higher level.

  3. marc

    I don’t know about the tv series. I’m guessing that you’re thinking that the movie needed more time to flesh things out, and I agree with you there. I just don’t know if there’s enough there to make an interesting weekly tv series. However, let me also say that the only tv series that I watch on a regular basis are 24, The Sopranos, and American Idol (my guilty pleasure).

  4. marc

    Oh yeah, regarding the actress, I’m assuming that you’re speaking about Paz Vega playing the character Moreno. Again, I thought she was terrific. I just don’t know enough hispanic actresses, maybe the one in “Y tu mama…” I thought your Edward Norton idea was intriguing, but I think he’s pretty much the cream of the crop in terms of being able to capture likability, intensity, and darkness. I thought Sandler did a good job for what the role called for. And I thought this was much better than “Punch Drunk Love” which I didn’t really get.

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