This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
Something odd happened last year. There was a short run of films starring Adam Sandler that not only were not utterly unbearable, but were genuinely good. P.T. Anderson’s oddity Punch Drunk Love was a clever, enjoyable little outing and there’s very little wrong with Anger Management and 50 First Dates either. Doomsday propagandists will however have to look elsewhere for further signs of the coming of the Horsemen, as Spanglish is an unwelcome return to bad form.
Immediate disclaimer – this is not Sandler’s fault, and more than likely no one else’s directly involved in the making of the film. However, I’m getting somewhat ahead of myself. Top chef John Clasky (Sandler) and his neurotic annoyance of a wife Deborah (Téa Leoni) need someone to help out around the house, and despite the disadvantage of being unable to speak a word of English they hire Mexican immigrant Flor Moreno (Paz Vega). Throw Deborah’s perma-sozzled mother Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), the unusually balanced and reasonable kids for films of this ilk Bernice (Sarah Steele), Georgie (Ian Hyland) and Flor’s own offspring Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) into the mix and the scene is surely set for some whacky, zany culture clash comedy that isn’t a tired and unnecessary exercise in film-making, oh no.
And actually, it isn’t. This may come as some surprise to anyone who has seen the promotional material as it is marketed squarely as a whacky, zany culture crash pishfest. To find a drama that focuses more on relationships, family ties and love as a chewy centre with an inedible coating is unexpected, unless of course you’ve just read this sentence, which I see that you have. Jolly good. Not to say that the chewy centre doesn’t have it’s fair share of glass shards and carcinogenic Worcester Sauce, but I don’t think it deserves to be dismissed as easily as it seems to have been in the mainstream press.
The title alone brings unbidden to mind a poor man’s Fawlty Towers, with some officious white twit badgering a barely comprehending waiter mispronouncing words for ‘comic’ effect. This would undoubtedly have been A Bad Thing, or at least a cheap gag. The language barrier here isn’t used in that fashion (or at least not to any extent) and for that it must be commended. It’s more sensibly used to show that language is immaterial, we all have the same concerns about the future and your children no matter what order the letters go in. While the utterly cynical might dismiss this as a trite, sappy statement it doesn’t make it an any less laudable one.
Genotype 2 that this was in danger of submitting to, ‘middle to upper class family is on verge of collapse until homily dispensing ethnic/poor character affects resolution’. I’ve seen some less reputable sources accusing Spanglish of this, which I can only attribute to having not actually seen the film or at best utterly missing Point A, detailed above. On the rare occasions Flor actually does wax lyrical on the subject (she learns English later on just as the plot device was becoming tiring. Contrary to popular opinion, there was some thought and skill put into this film) she’s not doling out any secret Mexican wisdom or traditional family sayings. She’s just expounding common sense, which might be alien to some but it certainly isn’t the exclusive province of ethnic minorities, and the fact that the speaker happens to be non-white seems to have knocked some commentators for an entirely unwarranted loop.
So it’s all gravy and lightbulbs then? Sadly no. There are flaws, albeit not the ones that it’s routinely pilloried for. After all, the fact that it’s not tremendously funny isn’t an unsurmountable hardship for a drama. If you’re expecting a comedy however, it’s a bit of a downer. So let us say this – if you want plenty of laughs, don’t see Spanglish. It’s not very funny. If you want a good solid drama, don’t see Spanglish either, but don’t see it for the following reasons.
Dramas live or die by their characters, and there’s a critical lack of depth in most of those on display. John Clasky is a loving husband, and a doting father. This is not a bad thing, although in the current cinematic climate it’s a rare thing. John’s such a nice guy it’s difficult not to feel for the guy later in the film. Again, this is not a bad thing, and it plays to Sandlers strengths. Despite the disparaging remarks in the first paragraph, he actually steps out of this film with our newfound respect for him largely intact, which will no doubt be a source of tremendous comfort for him.
His wife, however, is one of those women who fall into the rare category of ‘People You Would Never Tire Of Slapping’. Initially she just seems to be stressed with a slight case of social ineptitude. By a little over halfway, it becomes apparent that she’s so inconceivably arrogant, self-centred, irresponsible and awful that John staying in the same house as her isn’t the act of a loving husband, it’s an act worthy of canonisation. Oddly, just as Deborah is becoming more of shallow caricature her mother becomes more fleshed out, providing some much needed final reel verbal bitchslapping to her progeny to great cathartic effect although having her kick alcoholism entirely off camera seems a little lazy.
Paz Vega is very pretty. She provides an equally competent portrayal of a nice character as Sandler and the chemistry between the two is reasonable, but in this film nice is almost synonymous with bland. As such the most interesting thing about her performance is simply that she’s very pretty. Her on-screen kid really earns more plaudits, Shelbie Bruce not only proving very watchable in front of the camera but skilled on her occasional narration duty throughout the film. Sarah Steele also displays a likable lack of precociousness.
Despite doing a lot of things competently, the critical flaw here is the characters. They’re just a little too plastic and unreal to connect with over the course of the film, although it almost gets there in a few places. The participants are willing, but the script is weak. That said, it’s few failings as a drama are overshadowed by the marketing departments failure at positioning. Nominally an out and out comedy, it’s not funny enough for anyone expecting such to be anything other than underwhelmed. This isn’t Spanglish‘s fault, and I feel somewhat sorry for it. That and it feels wrong disparaging-by-proxy director James L. Brooks, given as he’s one of the forces behind the entertainment juggernaut that is The Simpsons. Ah well. Have to call it as I see it.