You, Girl--And You Should Know It!

James L. Brooks's latest Mary gets hers in 'Spanglish'

Holly Hunter's ambitious TV producer sets a timer for regular bouts of private weeping in Broadcast News. Shirley MacLaine's bitchy Aurora in Terms of Endearment takes lessons in love from her dying daughter and Jack Nicholson's usual acerbic flake. Ah, the James L. Brooks woman, from Mary Richards to Helen Hunt's Carol in As Good As It Gets: white, thin, a bit nervous, an appealing deficit of self-esteem to offset her intelligence, almost intimidatingly independent yet somehow dissatisfied...and inclined to craziness-- à la Cloris Leachman's Phyllis--if her strength goes untempered by vulnerability. Brooks has always seemed to serve her up with an affectionate hug even as she gets served (and learns to serve); in turn, audiences have adored her (and her many offspring--see Friends). With Spanglish, the Brooks type reaches its apex--and receives a honey of a smackdown. Fuck if I know whether to jeer or cheer.

Spanglish describes the meeting of two dissimilar Los Angeles families: one affluent and white, starring celebrity-chef dad John Clasky (Adam Sandler), former professional-turned-stay-at-home-mom Deb (Téa Leoni), two kids, and a live-in grandmother (Leachman, of course); the other a unit of two illegal immigrants--single mom/housekeeper Flor (Paz Vega) and preteen daughter Cristina (Victoria Luna). In a transparent attempt to avoid the usual minority-maid-helps-white-family-to-new-understanding-of-love story, Brooks frames the film with Flor and Cristina's struggles as they journey from Mexican privation to (it seems inevitable) a Princeton education. In a twist, those struggles play as more of a lark. Brooks tweaks their border crossing for a joke, and Flor's hiring with the Claskys after six years of--happy!--job-juggling comes despite her complete lack of English and, it appears, experience.

Help is on the way: Adam Sandler and Cloris Leachman in 'Spanglish'
Sony Pictures Entertainment
Help is on the way: Adam Sandler and Cloris Leachman in 'Spanglish'

Then again, Flor is hired by Deb, and Deb, the viewer quickly learns, is a couple wires short of a connection. When Flor's translator walks into the Claskys' too-clear sliding glass door and bloodies her nose, Deb assures her, "I'm not mad." After which she slips her some cash. Deb's conversation is fractured with frantic mid-sentence apologies, digressions, and/or glosses in a way that some (American, over-analyzed) viewers will recognize too well; she is so self-consciously insecure that she has become oblivious to the emotional realities of others. For an interesting minute, Brooks allows John to be equally clueless, but the director can't (or won't) sustain it. Quickly it becomes clear that Deb has been done in by the very qualities we've always admired in James L. Brooks women: She's compulsively thin, bulldozer-compassionate ("I know what's best for you!"), smart enough to rationalize any fault, lost without a career, so independent she's living in another universe.

Put simply, Deb is a bitch. More than one rumor leaked out during filming to the effect that Leoni and Brooks were bashing heads, and it's easy to see why: There's nothing sympathetic about Deb except, perhaps, her inevitable fall. Once in a while the pronouncements that arise out of her bizarre self-absorption draw laughs; mostly she looks cruel and ridiculous and, of course, beautiful, and Brooks's portrait seems flat-out bitter. The capper arrives when Brooks, via Cristina's voiceover, compares Latina and American (understood as white) women and concludes that, while both worry about their weight, the former are not pathologically afraid of the things--sensuality, food, motherhood--that may bring them a few extra pounds. Snap--the movie slips into painful focus: John's passion for food, Deb's obsessive running and uninterest in her children, Flor's full-breasted maternal glory (spotlit against a dark sky for the viewer's edification). Guess who's coming to dinner?

Trying to give Flor reasons for her desires, Brooks dumps on Latino men. Flor was abandoned by Cristina's father. Sandler's John, with his round shoulders and aw-shucks shtick (he looks like Albert Brooks, but one-eighth as smart), appears first weak to Flor, then miraculously sensitive. "I never knew a man who could put himself in my place like you do," coos the now-bilingual Flor. John intuitively understands feminine things: cooking, child rearing. (He had better, because Sandler resembles a genius chef about as much as he does a professional golfer--and unfortunately he's not playing it for laughs.) Unlike "all" those Latino men roasting in machismo (Cristina's voiceover once again makes it explicit), John caretakes the caretaker; what can she do but swoon?

Brooks, too, would like to be seen as sensitive to the Flors of the world, especially by culture-sensitive white Americans like himself. He includes large swaths of Spanish dialogue with subtitles. While Flor and Cristina are portrayed as prototypical good immigrants, eager to work and become educated, they are also proud of and committed to their Latino heritage. (Or so the viewer is told. Once Flor begins working for the Claskys, the single representation of that background is a family dinner established only so Flor can leave it to retrieve her Deb-swayed daughter.) Flor gets enough screen time to establish her character. Is it mean-spirited to note that this Latina woman is...um, passionate, warm, flashing-eyed, and hot-tempered?

To complain that Flor (let alone Deb) conforms to stereotype may be missing the point, of course. This material is meant to be comic, and comedy is rife with stereotypes. Leachman's timing is so terrific (and she gets so many of the best lines) that I don't mind that her drunk eccentric breaks no molds. However, Brooks's comedy has always been laced with morality lessons. Partly because of his tendency to judge--and partly due to a few long, flat, jokeless stretches--it seems unfair that this game is rigged. The apparently miscast Everyman Sandler is very good at acting pathetic and clumsy and awakening the audience's empathy. His director lets him loose. And the James L. Brooks woman learns that, try as she might to be like a man, she'll never be as good as him--not even at being a woman.

 
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