A comic drama about the way we live now, "Spanglish" is a film as contemporary as its title by a writer-director with a well-established gift for showing us who we are. It gives us ideas to chew on, moments to laugh at and performances to admire, but, like so many current lives, it is also somewhat in disarray, not always equal to its admirable intentions and the grace of its most successful aspects.
This is especially unfortunate because the writer-director is Jim Brooks, someone whose best films ("Terms of Endearment," "Broadcast News") are, to borrow the title of his last success, as good as it gets in terms of smartly written, deeply felt, inescapably idiosyncratic character comedy.
It's been seven years since that Jack Nicholson-Helen Hunt film, but one of the odd things about "Spanglish" is that it doesn't feel quite finished or completely worked out. Though it clocks in at two hours and 11 minutes, "Spanglish" has an abbreviated air, with key characters and situations likely intended for greater screen time than they got in the final cut.
Perhaps this is because "Spanglish," like all of Brooks' work, is exceptionally ambitious, trying to do too much, tell too many stories, take it all in. Some of its scenarios are brilliant, some do not involve us despite everyone's best intentions. The film's most admirable characters are its least interesting, its most difficult individual is its strongest point, and its most conventional aspect interests us least of all. As Brooks himself would be the first to say, go figure.
Yet "Spanglish's" strengths are considerable.
As he has since "Terms of Endearment," Brooks understands completely the complex dynamic between mothers and daughters. What gets added here to the difference in generations is the difference between cultures, a keen and empathetic sense of how difficult becoming an American is and how large the gap can be between the newly arrived and the already established.
No one is making major studio films about these topics, and even if other people were, no one would be doing it like this.
"Spanglish" starts with a standard college application essay, asking who the most influential person in your life is. "My mother, no contest," says Cristina, reading aloud off-screen from her essay, a key for the film to begin showing us exactly why.
Cristina's story starts in Mexico City, where her mother, Flor (Spanish star Paz Vega), gets left by Cristina's father when the girl is 6. With a better life for her daughter in mind, Flor illegally crosses the border and lives for six years totally within L.A.'s Latino community. Only when Cristina is 12 (played by an excellent Shelbie Bruce) does Flor, still not speaking the language, finally enter the "foreign land" of English-speaking Anglos when she is hired as a housekeeper for the Clasky family of affluent Bel-Air.
Vega, who debuted in the memorable "Sex and Lucia" and appeared in Almodovar's "Talk to Her," completely embodies Flor. Initially unfamiliar with English (like her character), Vega nevertheless brings a lively and unmistakable warmth and charm to this caring woman who puts her relationship with her daughter ahead of everything else.
The family Flor goes to work for is a much more complicated business. Husband and father John (Adam Sandler) is a top chef who owns his own restaurant and thinks his family is the most important thing in his life. His good-hearted young daughter Bernice (a truly winning Sarah Steele) is battling a weight problem, and his son Georgie (Ian Hyland) is on screen so briefly he almost seems an afterthought.
Making "Spanglish's" most indelible impression is wife and mother Deborah, played by Tea Leoni in a gangbusters performance that is little less than heroic. For this is an immensely complicated character, endlessly exasperating but completely believable, a bundle of neuroses and nerves who wants desperately to do the right thing but is too self-absorbed and self-indulgent to be anything more than bossy and intrusive.
Egged on by her live-in mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman, ever reliable), a tart-tongued heavy drinker given to saying things like, "Lately your low self esteem is just good common sense," Deborah is easily "Spanglish's" most complex, most classically Jim Brooks character. It's to Leoni's credit that she so threw herself into this part that we see not just the wreckage she causes but the reasons she feels she can't be other than she is.
Compared to this exhausting tornado of disturbing emotions, housekeeper Flor comes off looking even more likable and level-headed than she ordinarily would as she and her daughter become increasingly involved in the psychodrama that passes for daily life in the Clasky household.