When you really recollect what you’ve just seen, when the credits start to roll and you’re settled in and thinking back with a fond remembrance, you know that “Spanglish” isn’t an exceptional movie. As a comedy the laughs are minimal. It’s more of an absurdist comedy than a laugh out loud comedy, as a drama it can be manipulative, and altogether it’s just mediocre. Now, I for one, dislike anything that’s praised as brilliant when the product is mediocre (Harry Potter), but what sold me on “Spanglish” was not the story, but the performances, and the key powerful performances are not from the people who obtain top billing.
The key performances, the ones that completely had me engrossed were from the actors we heard very little of. For many, the lure was either Adam Sandler or James L. Brooks, but I wanted to see this simply because it looked like an enjoyable adult comedy. In many respects it’s in the tradition of “As Good as it Gets”, but the only real exception is that this is actually a good film. Brooks, a master of the sitcom, manages to have a multi-angular comedy that presents an assortment of sub-plots from an assortment of view points from many different characters, but it works without a fault. Spanish film star Paz Vega plays Flor, a Mexican immigrant who moves to America with her daughter, and takes a job with the Clasky’s a middle class family with problems. Lots of problems. And Flor ends up in the middle of it all while being forced to watch her daughter progress and be accepted within the family and slowly drift away from her.
One of many true appeals of “Spanglish” is Paz Vega who is both gorgeous and entertaining in this very likable performance, and her character while witnessing this utterly atrocious family is very worth watching as a protagonist observer. She has the gap of not knowing their language and watching from behind the glass, but the language barrier makes no difference since, on her first day working, the events happening to these people becomes utterly apparent to her. When the family vacations, she’s basically pushed in to moving with them along with her daughter Cristina. The two stand-out performances here are from Shelbie Bruce and Sarah Steele. Bruce is engrossing and charming as the rambunctious, obstreperous, and often wise beyond her years daughter. Possessing the ability to speak both languages, it gives her the entrance to watch and learn while sneaking around behind her mom’s back.
Bruce is great here, and has the best sequence where she must translate for her mom who yells at Sandler’s character about her, through her, as her. It’s less complicated then it sounds, but it’s a hilarious scene that Brooks and Bruce dominate. Steele, meanwhile, is hilarious and sweet as her mom’s Deborah’s antithesis, Bernice. She’s a semi-tragic character who has a weight problem and innocence that no one her but her dad understands. She’s forced to sit on the sidelines confronting her weight problem which her mom reminds her of daily, remaining basically ignored by everyone but her dad. She’s quirky, and funny, and has great genuine chemistry with her on-screen father.
She’s basically the most true humanistic portrait in the film with problems she can’t really cure, but displays a sense of confidence in spite of it. With gawkish braces, insecurities, freckles, and her weight problem, she’s the most realistic looking girl I’ve seen on film in a while. Sandler actually gives a good performance here, but his best scenes are with Steele as he’s able to hone in on to her frequency no one else can, and their scenes are very loving and touching. And who can forget the incomparable Cloris Leachman as the fading starlet/drunkard who is basically ignored until she stops drinking. She’s very funny here, as she always is.
Brooks being Brooks manages to compose some very well crafted scenes from the opening, to the Cristina translating for her mom scene, to the sea glass scene which was by far the funniest here. It’s tragic that these people–whether they know it or not–talk down to and never take these two women seriously at all, yet it manages to come back and bite them in the ass. Take for example the scene where Sandler’s character attempts to be “charitable” and invents a game to give him an excuse to give money to Cristina–which ends up backfiring in hilarious results. Brooks can’t squeeze out originality, but he squeezes out good performances, and that’s basically why I really liked it. Brooks would do well to note that a movie is much more different from a sitcom, in fact it’s a common problem many writers and directors who can never differentiate a television sitcom from a feature film, and it doesn’t stop Brooks who has immense experience in both mediums.
For all it’s benefits, “Spanglish” also has many flaws including its often shrill presence that resorts to sitcom devices like pratfalls, out takes, screaming, crazy misunderstandings, and extreme melodrama that would make even the worst soap opera writers cringe. The scene with Bernice and her clothing was utterly manipulative and a shameless gauge at the audience while Sandler and Vega’s friendship is very exaggerated to an embarrassing degree. “Spanglish” feels much like a two hour sitcom with an utterly trite and fluffy atmosphere that was more alienating than actually welcoming. It’s not exceptional in the least. As a film it’s just run of the mill. But when you cut it down and examine the aspects of it, it becomes exceptional simply for the great performances, enjoyable story and often gripping human drama that, though exaggerated, is still engrossing. It’s no masterpiece–I can admit–but the performances won me over in the end.