Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Spanglish

Posted by CinemaPsycho on January 14, 2005

Directed and written by James L. Brooks/starring Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni, Paz Vega, Cloris Leachman/Columbia Pictures

Wow…when exactly did James L. Brooks turn into Garry Marshall?

I know I normally start my reviews with a quick plot summary, but frankly thinking about the details of this movie for much longer might cause cranial bleeding. Suffice it to say, it’s pretty much the movie you imagine it would be from the ads: a dysfunctional, upper-class white family hires a new Mexican maid (Vega) whose very presence “turns their lives upside down”. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll stick your finger in your eye.

Now imagine that movie if it were made by Martians who gained their knowledge about human behavior by watching bad sitcoms and Spanish soap operas without subtitles. Then imagine they made that movie with a script translated into English from Swahili. And cast actors who were deathly afraid of contacting a virus from each other. That’s as close to the experience of watching Spanglish as I can get with mere words.

Seriously, I’m truly amazed that I’ve actually seen some half-decent reviews for this utter debacle, and that people were even talking up its Oscar potential (before they saw it). There isn’t one iota of recognizable, believable human behavior in this entire waste of time and effort. In fact, to compare it to sitcoms is an insult to sitcoms. Even the most cringe-worthy episode of Full House is more worthwhile than the entire 128 minutes (ouch) of Spanglish. And I really, really hate Full House.

Where did Brooks go wrong? I don’t even know where to begin. We could start where the movie does, with a bizarrely misguided narrative conceit in which the maid’s young daughter tells the story through a college application. Besides the fact that most of the movie is told from her mother’s perspective, not hers, and includes many scenes in which she is not included and could not have witnessed? It also does nothing to illuminate the story in any way (other than to completely confuse whatever issues Brooks thought he was dealing with) and is obviously way too long to be included in any college application. We also never even find out if she got accepted (unless I missed something at the end, between furiously checking my watch and wishing I’d gone to see something else, ANYTHING else, instead). If this was supposed to tie everything together somehow, or to help the movie make a point, it completely fails. I have a sneaking suspicion that all this was added at the last minute to clear up whatever the hell this nonsense is meant to be about. But it only serves to muddy the waters.

Then there’s the movie’s treatment of its Hispanic characters, which is actually kind of offensive in its refusal to treat them as anything but virtuous, righteous saints who possess so much more down-to-earth wisdom than us Anglo-Saxon heathens. It’s a kind of reverse condescension, in that it goes so far out of its way to avoid potentially negative stereotypes that it becomes its own mirror-image stereotype that is equally laughable. Brooks obviously doesn’t want to be accused of political incorrectness, so he paints Flor (Vega) as an impossible superheroine instead of a real human being. God forbid she be seen as anything other than the nicest, smartest, most capable human being on Earth. Never mind that we rarely see her doing any actual work – that would be insensitive, after all. I’m not even Hispanic, and I felt condescended to on their behalf.

This is, of course, meant to contrast with the deeply dysfunctional upscale white family, the Claskys. They are portrayed as some subspecies of howler monkeys, screeching and clawing at each other for no apparent reason I was able to discern. The husband and father, John (Sandler) is a major-league chef with a strange fear of success (nice problem to have); whereas his wife Deborah (Leoni) has apparently crossed the border from troubled neurotic to full-blown raging bitch monster from Hell. They have an overweight daughter, a young son who’s barely in the movie, and Deborah’s former jazz-singer mother (Leachman) who lives with them for some unknown reason and is only there to dole out sage advice to the other characters whenever the plot deems it necessary.

So OK, point taken; white American families are screwed up. Got it. But this particular family is insanely unconvincing. I never believed for a second that any of these people were related to each other, or in fact had ever had any interaction with each other before the camera began to roll. From the very first scene in which they are introduced, none of them ever seem like real people as individuals, nor do they coalesce as a realistic family. Mostly they seem like actors desperately struggling to get through overwritten dialogue before someone on the set begs them to shut up already.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism of Leoni’s performance as the shrieking, hypercritical matriarch, and indeed Deborah seems like someone who should be institutionalized immediately for the good of society rather than a simple screwed-up neurotic. But I don’t think that’s Leoni’s fault – I think she was just playing the character as written. It’s no less awkward than the rest of this terribly misguided movie. Brooks seems to think that anyone with such deep character flaws must be portrayed as an unhinged, psychotic wreck, just as anyone who is essentially “good” must be portrayed as though they should have a halo and wings. It’s an awful miscalculation, but you can’t blame the actress alone for that. Leoni doesn’t make us like Deborah, but we’re not supposed to. It would have helped if we understood her. We don’t, not for a second.

By contrast, Sandler is relatively laid-back and sympathetic as her husband, a “normal” guy grappling with the fact that the person he loves has somehow transformed into a berserk she-beast. Yet he still seems miscast here, and I don’t have anything against the guy as a performer. He just seems stranded by the material, like the rest of the cast. At times he resembles an odd cross between Gabe Kaplan and Al Pacino here, and it’s exactly as weird as it sounds. Paz Vega is apparently a huge star in Spain, and she’s gorgeous and talented. I look forward to seeing her in a good movie someday.

The curious thing about this movie is that while I sat through it, I kept feeling like there must have been another, better movie happening offscreen, or maybe on the cutting-room floor. When the characters spend 3/4 of the running time pissed off at each other for no apparent reason, and by the time you find out why you no longer care…there’s a big problem. I’ve read rumors about re-edits at the last minute on this film, but I can only review the movie that’s on the screen, and it’s just an intolerable mess. What’s worse is that nothing that happens in it is the least bit amusing, and I’m completely at a loss as to why it was supposed to be. I can honestly say that I didn’t laugh once, and even the worst comedies can force at least one laugh out of me. Not this one. When Thomas Haden Church showed up out of nowhere (in a part that must have been mostly cut, I assume), I was hoping someone had slipped in a reel of Sideways for us poor unfortunate souls who were suffering through this, but sadly that was not the case.

What was Brooks trying to accomplish here? What made him think that anyone would care about a story that’s as phony as a three-dollar bill? And what possessed him to end the film the way he did? What was his “message” here – that people of different cultures and backgrounds CAN’T get along and live together? I seriously doubt that’s what he intended this movie to say, but that’s the way it plays. I suspect that Brooks originally intended to make a film about the Claskys through the eyes of their maid and her daughter, then halfway through decided that Flor was more interesting and tried to shape the movie around her. You can’t fault him for his instincts, but the result is a movie that makes Alexander look focused and coherent.

In all fairness, there were four middle-aged ladies in the audience who apparently loved the movie, as they laughed throughout the entire misbegotten thing. I can’t imagine why, but maybe they were Brooks’ target audience – upper-class white women who felt better about hiring illegal immigrants and neglecting their children through the experience of watching this. That’s as good a theory as any other I could possibly come up with. Or maybe they were Martians.

* 1/14/05

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