A number of great movies could be made about the culture clash of Latino immigrants and bourgeois whites in Los Angeles, but Spanglish is, sadly, none of them. James L. Brooks, who made the classic Broadcast News nearly twenty years ago, needs to get his groove back. On the evidence of his latest picture, the sloppy Spanglish, one might think that Brooks's narrative instincts bend to breaking outside the 22-minute bounds of a television sitcom, though his filmography proves he has a skill for crafting movie-size popular entertainments. Terms of Endearment is some kind of miracle of a weepy comedy-drama, and As Good As It Gets is a bear-hug of a movie that made it on Archie Bunker disingenuousness and star power. But Spanglish is a fitful, contrived, 131-minute guilt trip which fails to convince an audience fully to invest in any of its characters.
The luminous Spanish actress Paz Vega plays Flor, a Mexican maid called up to serve the neurotic Clasky family: spineless dad John (Adam Sandler), freight-train mom Deborah (Téa Leoni), her chatty wino grandma (Cloris Leachman), and two kids: a son who's quickly sent to the cutting room floor without dinner and a daughter who struggles with her weight and her self-esteem. As strung together by the college-essay narration of Flor's once-conflicted daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), Spanglish noodles around in domestic strife, scores a few funny bits, takes some emotional cheap shots, then strides into the L.A. sunset.
Brooks has good intentions, but no perspective on Mexican-American communities (except for the statistic, noted in the opening moments, that Los Angeles is 48% Hispanic—hooray for Google!). Cristina's narration archly notes that the vulnerable John seems "to have the emotions of a Mexican woman," which gives you some idea of Brooks' insight. Flor loves her daughter, and has a weakness for kind men, Malibu-Barbie wives notwithstanding; this is all we need to know. For a maid who suffers under Leoni's two-faced condescension and undiagnosed manic depression, Flor is unaccountably magnetized by the Claskys, when any real person would run home and vent about the crazies for whom she's obliged to work. Maybe she likes them because she never, apparently, has to do any work. Between the saintly Flor and the selfish Deborah, Spanglish might have been called "Real Women Have Nervous Breakdowns."
Brooks' privileged liberal guilt for the hired help does not extend to the pampered wives of creative geniuses. Upwardly mobile chef John laments the possibility of a ruinous 4-star review for his upscale "neighborhood" restaurant, then comes home to a harridan who emasculates him with assaultive, loveless, high-impact sex. She also uses passive-agressive bullying to encourage her daughter to slim down, contemplates an affair, and generally lives an existence so steeped in power-mad self-absorption that she fails to notice the life-change blooming in her live-in mom (don't get me started on Leachman's character, a sassy dispenser of drunk jokes and worldly wisdom). Perhaps not incidentally, Brooks navigated a divorce while developing Spanglish.
The actors try their hardest—often too hard—to go with Brooks' grain, and amusing moments can be had in isolation from the overarching horror of the big picture; an argument between John and Flor—translated fiestily by her daughter—is cute, and Leachman fires off a few good zingers. But Spanglish's length and utter lack of understatement are as deadening as Brooks' discomfiting sense of the immigrant "other." When contemplating putting his feet on the ground, John says, "That floor is going to eat us alive". The homonym expresses his belief that Flor is larger than life, but any sensible audience member shoudl want to see her as a human being, not an abstract life-force to show the upper class the way. Spanglish is feel-good, feel-bad, feel-good twaddle, sunny populism for white folks only.