In his four previous films, three of which - Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets - received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, James Brooks has demonstrated a knack for making loathsome characters lovable. But in his latest film, Spanglish, a dramatic comedy about cross-cultural understanding (and the lack thereof), the venerable director may have met his match in Téa Leoni's Deborah Clasky, a woman who's both so needily insecure and so greedily self-absorbed that she manages to annoy us both coming and going. Oozing WASP snottiness, Leoni has never struck me as very funny, but she pulls out all the stops here, letting loose a barrage of neurotic tics. I must say, I appreciated the effort, even enjoyed the spectacle, but when you get right down to it, she's miscast.
A very L.A. kind of story, Spanglish features Spanish actress Paz Vega as a Mexican woman who heads north with her young daughter (Shelbie Bruce), then finds work as a housekeeper with a family of well-off Americanos. In most movies, the Mexican housekeeper is part of the furniture, but nobody who looks like Vega is going to remain part of the furniture for long. And even though Vega's Flor speaks barely a word of English, she's soon part of the family, although exactly what part of the family remains an open question. Adam Sandler, acting his age for once, plays the man of the house, an all-around nice guy who's had it up to here with his wife's neuroses. There are kids involved, and despite taking a good hour to find its groove, the movie evolves into a parable about parenting, good and bad.
Unfortunately, Brooks assigns all the good qualities to dad, all the bad qualities to mom - a nice role reversal, given that movie-dads often have to be reminded that they even have kids. But it still flattens out the movie dramatically. Spanglish might not be worth the price of admission if it weren't for the delicate relationship between Flor and Sandler's John. They flirt with an affair in such a tentative way that not even they seem to know how much they've come to mean to each other. Pin some of that on the language barrier. Brooks wisely doesn't provide subtitles, but the movie nevertheless improves as Flor's English does. Meanwhile, Leoni keeps dragging it down with her bitch-on-wheels routine. She does have one very funny moment, however, in a sex scene that reaches a hilariously anticlimactic climax.