(PG-13) 3 1/2 starsEd Johnson-Ott
James L. Brooks, who wrote and directed the comedy/drama Spanglish, is the man behind As Good As It Gets, Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment. He also created a number of classic sitcoms, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi. As anyone familiar with the titles can attest, Brooks is a master at creating memorable characters, heartfelt exchanges and big laughs.
Spanglish has all of that, but in a meandering, occasionally maddening package. This is a big, squishy film, best evidenced by a scene where the wonderful Cloris Leachman, as boozing mother Evelyn, comforts her wailing adult daughter Deborah, played to repulsive perfection by Tea Leoni. While Deborah scrambles about the room, sobbing and shrieking while blaming others for her problems, Evelyn sticks with her, soothing her, offering sage advice and popping off a few good one-liners. When Deborah finally quiets and gets ready to leave the room, Evelyn helps groom her by wiping Deborah's runny nose with her index finger and thumb.
In James L. Brooks' world, life is full of laughter and tears, but you have to be willing to embrace it, especially when it gets messy. Fine, but if only the script had been a little tidier ...
The story is told in flashback by Cristina (the voiceover is by Aimee Garcia, while the talented Shelbie Bruce plays the character on screen) as she reads from her admission essay to Princeton. She remembers when her mother, Flor (Paz Vega, charismatic even while sputtering and shouting), brought her from Mexico to L.A., where she ended up in a neighborhood full of illegal immigrants and her mother, who spoke no English, found employment as a maid with the well-to-do Clasky family.
John (Adam Sandler at his most lovable) and Deborah Clasky make an interesting couple. He is a successful restaurateur, one of the hottest chefs in the country and quite possibly the nicest man who ever lived. She is the spawn of Satan - a just-fired overbearing tantrum-prone narcissist who is a lousy daughter, wife and mother. They have a bright young daughter, Bernice (the very appealing Sarah Steele), who is well-balanced despite having a mother that deliberately buys her clothes a size too small to entice her to lose weight, and a younger son, Georgie (Ian Hyland), who seems happy enough - even though no one ever seems to speak to him. Living with John and Deborah is the aforementioned Evelyn, whose drinking is understandable given that the poor woman must spend her days knowing that Deborah sprung from her loins.
When the Claskys get a summer beach house in Malibu, Deborah insists that Flor move in. When she learns that Flor has a daughter, she pushes for the girl to move in as well. Flor grudgingly consents and Cristina becomes part of the household, which begs the question: How could Cristina have included all that we have seen at the Clasky home up to this point when she wasn't there yet?
Ah, but you won't have time to think about that in the theater. You'll be too busy feeling disgust as Deborah dotes on the beautiful Cristina while ignoring her own daughter. The rest of the film divides itself between Flor and Deborah's battle over Cristina, and Deborah and John's marital problems.
Brooks' sitcom roots show here - the one-liners stand out more than in his previous films. But at least they are good one-liners (Deborah, during a major fight: "Are you really that much nicer a person than me?" John: "Well, you don't set the bar very high."). His dramatic scenes work better, with humor taking the edge off some of the more speech-y passages.
At the end of the film, Cristina stops remembering the many long scenes she wasn't in and the focus abruptly shifts back solely to her mother and her, with no resolution of the Clasky dramas. So you'll have to decide for yourself whether John and Deborah stay together. Funny, I'm not sure which would constitute a happy ending.