December 19, 2004


Coming out of James L. Brooks's new film Spanglish, I can identify two key points of contention that could derail the film for a viewer: The implausibility of some of the plot turns, and Téa Leoni's character.
The plot conveniences were a blemish on a film that was at times spectacularly involving for me. But while I absolutely hated Leoni's character by the end of the film, it is an absolutely skilled creation. Her bundle of neurotic tendencies resolve themselves in a variety of different ways; she is always a ticking time bomb that resolves in outbursts and displays of extreme thoughtlessness and unintended (and occasionally intended) cruelty. If she were all this film had to offer, it would be a despicable film. (and have far more Oscar buzz as a result)
But she is only one piece is a spectacularly complex pie. The interaction between Leoni, husband, children, mother, maid, and maid's daughter is endlessly involving; each character is distinct in their emotions and motivations. And the effect that each personality has on the others spreads is ways large and small, profound and tragic. Standing out from the rest are two relationships that parallel and stir even as they interact.
Leoni's character, Deb, is married to Adam Sandler's character John. Deb and John's relationship is not one of those two; it never approaches that territory until the end. But Deb and John have an funny, charming, sensitive, and overweight daughter named Bernice. Even as Bernice is devastated by Deb's actions which alternate between active cruelty and neglect, she shares with her father one of the purest on-screen relationships between a parent and their child in years. As Deb dotes on the maid's beautiful young daughter Christina in her endless search for validation, Bernice watches from the sidelines at all of the things her mother should have been doing for her. When Christina cultivates friends at school, again Bernice is the outcast. This is a C-plot in terms of focus, but it is ever present throughout the proceedings, and it is (with one notable exception) the focus of Sandler's character. When the rest of the world shuns this poor girl, John lets her seek comfort in his familiar hugs. When the rest of the world tells her that she needs to be corrected, John tells her that she's spectacular and just how much he loves her. With fitness freak Deb clearly not an appealing contrast, this film is powerful in its counter-movement to American society's focus on conformity at any cost. At one point, John notes that "between odd and the same, you gotta be rooting for odd, don't you?" when the maid reveals her two fears about her daughter attending a private school.
Christina, the object of Deb's misplaced affections, is an innocent along for the rider; her older wiser self narrates the film in terms of a college admissions essay. Her relationship with her mother is equally unique. The maid, Flor, gives up everything for her daughter, including a somewhat dicey trip across the border. Deb represents the temptation of the excesses of modern upper-middle-class white America. Flor represents the purity and honesty of her roots both in her mother's love and her mother's culture. The interplay between these two often opposing forces is a source of fascination, one that Shelbie Bruce handles perfectly. There is a scene late in the film which gives the indication that Deborah's philosophy has completely only one brief change in expression belies the actual truth.
Through out this all, hovering around this whole mess is Deb's mother Evelyn. Evelyn, who was once a jazz singer of some renown, is played by Cloris Leachman and hovers over and around the action with a wonderfully sardonic sense of humour. In her character we gain an indication of where some of Deb's issues came from, but we also gain an understanding of how much further Evelyn has come sense. Now she balances her time between hiding her alcoholic tendencies and prodding her daughter in the right general direction and shielding the rest of the group from the aftermath. I have seen Cloris Leachman play kindly and I have seen Cloris Leachman play sarcastically un-PC and cruel. In Spanglish, she strikes a somewhat realistic balance of the two.
I'm still not entirely sold on an woman as beautiful as Paz Vega experiencing what her character does. The means of her moving herself and her daughter in with the family can only partially be explained away by Deb's manic behaviour and decision-making. The hand of the screenwriter can be felt guiding the action a little more than it should.
But in the end, this was a fantastic range of characters, and as they gained and grew and hurt and hugged I felt for them and felt with them. I feel guilty giving this that extra-half star, but when this movie's at its peak there are moments that simply can't be found in National Treasure. Leoni inhabited that wretched soul. Sandler made fatherhood admirable again. Cloris Leachman went up a notch in my book. And Paz Vega and Shelbie Bruce reminded me that not all struggles to preserve cultural identity can be outside of my ability to relate. ()


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