Spanglish review by Mike Long

One of the main problems with being human, besides that whole dying thing, is that we aren't perfect and we can make mistakes, even those who have excellent track records. James L. Brooks has been a driving force in entertainment for over 40 years, having created such classic TV shows as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi before moving into Oscar-winning films like Terms of Endearment and As Good as it Gets. Brooks did experience box-office failure in 1994 with I'll Do Anything, but seemed to be a fluke in his repertoire. Then, in 2004, after a 7-year absence from writing/directing, Brooks returned with Spanglish, a film which was a disappointment at the box-office and divided critics. Now on DVD, the movie appears to be two-movies in one, and while neither is perfect, if Brooks had stuck with one of them, he could have had another classic on his hands.

As Spanglish opens, we meet Flor Moreno (Paz Vega) and her daughter Cristina (Victoria Luna), who flee Mexico for the United States after Flor's husband leaves her. Arriving in Los Angeles, they move in with Flor's cousin, Monica (Cecilia Suarez). Six years later, with Cristina (now played by Shelbie Bruce) entering puberty, Flor realizes that she can't continue to work days and nights, so she must find a new job with better pay. She replies to an ad for a housekeeper for the Clasky family and when Flor is offered a salary that she can't refuse, she takes the job.

To put it mildly, the Clasky family is a mess. Deborah (Tea Leoni) is a perfectionist stay-at-home mom and a bundle of nerves. Her mom, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), is an ex-singer and a functional alcoholic. John (Adam Sandler) is a successful chef who often keeps his feelings to himself. Their daughter, Bernice (Sarah Steele), struggles with her homework and her weight. Her brother, Georgie (Ian Hyland), is almost ignored by everyone. As Flor doesn't speak English, she is oblivious to the family dynamics at first, and concentrates on her work. But, as she gets to know the family better, and decides to finally learn English, she begins to understand just how damaged the Clasky's are. In return, the Clasky's cling to Flor, and eventually, Cristina, as they are actually a loving family. However, even Flor's level-headed nature can't cure all of the Clasky's problems.

One of the pitfalls of movie reviewing is to talk about what a movie isn't, or what it could have been. (The late Gene Siskel used to do this quite a bit.) With Spanglish, it's very difficult to resist this temptation, as the film is quite flawed, but it could have been so much more. The film could have simply focused on Flor and Cristina and chronicled their struggles to make it in America. This may have been a very cliched and unoriginal movie, but a talented writer/director like Brooks could have made it work. However, Brooks must be applauded for taking this idea a step further and also focusing on the family that Flor goes to work for. But, it's that family that keeps the movie from being good.

In short, the Clasky's are simply too flawed. Deborah is such a crazy bitch that it's impossible to like all. And that would be OK, if she weren't so over the top (although, I have met women like her). I think that Brooks intended for the audience to compare and contrast, and possibly draw parallels between Flor & Cristina and Deborah and Bernice, but it's so hard to get past Deborah's personality, that we can only see her flaws. John is a much more likable character, but when we see what he puts up with, it's hard to respect him. Once again, this may be realistic, but that doesn't make it entertaining, or engaging. Also, Brooks is as well-known for his comedy as for his drama, but the comedy here feels very forced, most notably the scenes with Evelyn's drinking or the family dog, and these scenes are rarely funny.

The good news is that Spanglish isn't as bad as I'd expected it to be and it does has some positive aspects. When the story focuses on Flor and Cristina, there are some genuinely touching moments, the best being their first trip to a nice restaurant. The acting in the film is top-notch, with Sandler turning in a surprising role. If you've seen his comedies, you may have noticed that underneath the insane moron is usually a sweet guy, and Sandler brings that person to the forefront here. Leoni must have been good in her role considering the intense dislike that she creates. Paz Vega is excellent as Flor, as she's forced to do so much acting with her facial expressions and gestures. Spanglish isn't a total loss, but it's certainly not another triumph for Brooks. The movie has some nice moments, but it is truly flawed and only worth a rental.

Spanglish is translated to DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image looks good, but not perfect. There is noticeable edge-enhancement on the picture throughout the film and the picture looked somewhat hazy throughout -- this wasn't helped by some slight artifacting. On the plus side, the picture is free from grain or defects from the source material. The colors look good and the framing appears to be accurate. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. This track provides clear dialogue and sound effects, with no notable defects. The film is a dialogue-driven dramedy, so most of the audio comes from the center channel. However, we do get some nice surround effects from musical cues and street sound effects.

The Spanglish DVD carries a few extras. We start with an audio commentary from writer/director/producer James L. Brooks, and editors Richard Marks and Tin Nolan. This is a fun chat as the trio talk about many facets of the film, including the actors, the story, the settings, and of course, the editing. Brooks claims that he wants the participants to be frank in their comments and they do talk about re-edits and re-shoots, but overall they are quite positive about the film. The DVD contains 12 "Additional Scenes" which can be viewed with an optional commentary from Brooks, Marks, and Nolan (Unfortunately, the only way to get "Play All" is to hear the commentary.). Some of these are brand new scenes, while others are simply extended versions of scenes in the film. In total, the scenes run about 30 minutes. "HBO First Look: The Making of Spanglish" is a 13-minute featurette which contains some behind-the-scenes footage and comments from the cast and Brooks, but it's mostly made up of clips from the movies. In "Casting Session" (4 minutes) we get to see footage of Victoria Luna, Shelbie Bruce, Sarah Steele, and Paz Vega trying out for their roles (optional commentary by Brooks). And finally we have "How to Make the World's Greatest Sandwich featuring Tomas Keller" (4 minutes), which is exactly what it sounds like. I rarely comment on DVD cover art, but the DVD cover for Spanglish is awful and I hadn't gotten the DVD from a reputable source, I'd think it was a bootleg.

4 out of 10 Jackasses

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