The Arizona Republic
Dec. 17, 2004
Bill Muller

Although amusing in places, Spanglish feels incomplete, as if it was overshot, cut back and assembled with vital pieces missing.

In trying to fit his film into a two-hour-plus package, director James L. Brooks kept the laughs but lost important links in the story.

The most crucial story element involves the main character, world-class chef John Clasky (Adam Sandler), and his attraction to a newly hired housekeeper, Flor (Paz Vega). But Brooks builds little foundation to support John's supposed infatuation, and Flor's conservative persona keeps the movie in a box.

Unless Brooks (As Good as It Gets, Terms of Endearment) is willing to betray his characters, which is not in his makeup, Spanglish has no place to travel, except to an ambiguous resolution that's neither satisfying nor unexpected.

On the upside, Spanglish is a fairly funny movie, if only for the presence of Cloris Leachman (Bad Santa, The Last Picture Show), who gives a sidesplitting performance as Clasky's mother-in-law, Evelyn, a heavy drinker who must sober up to rescue her daughter, Deborah (Téa Leoni).

Deborah has recently left the workforce (probably not by choice) and has focused her overachieving ways on her marriage and kids, with unsatisfying results. Although John is the perfect husband, Deborah, no matter how hard she strives, cannot make herself the perfect wife and mom.

She stumbles in dealing with her overweight daughter, Bernice (Sarah Steele), buying the girl clothes that are a size too small. She's equally unresponsive to her husband, almost forgetting he's there during a lovemaking session.

This is the best I've seen from Leoni (Deep Impact, Jurassic Park III), who worked herself into great shape for the role - Deborah is a devoted runner - and takes a chance by looking bedraggled on-screen. If anything, Leoni's previous lightweight roles were tied to her undeniably good looks, but Spanglish gives notice that David Duchovny's wife can act.

There is an impulse to declare the Spanish-born Vega (Talk to Her, Sex and Lucia) a discovery, but she's really just the latest edition of Penélope Cruz. She deserves credit for working in English - her character gradually learns the language - but she's hardly what you take home from Spanglish.

Nor is Sandler. The best that can be said for him is that he holds his own, but he hardly seems comfortable. As it turns out, when he takes off the red-hooded sweatshirt and stops singing Hanukkah songs, Sandler comes off as earnest but largely uninteresting.

Spanglish deserves an audience because much of Brooks' writing is still strong and fresh. The movie includes at least one terrific scene between Leoni and Sandler, though you can feel Brooks coaching Sandler from just off camera.

But among Brooks' films, Spanglish fails to have much impact. His Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets were helped along by the presence of Jack Nicholson, who can do more with a single expression than Sandler can do by leaping off a pier.

But don't worry. He'll do that in his next movie.

Reach Muller at (602) 444-8651.