Cinema Signal:

Living in Spanglish:
The Search for Latino Identity in America

. "Spanglish"

Adam Sandler has a large and loyal following for his goofy good guy who inhabits a world all its own. Those of us, however, who don't buy into that world see a guy who is seriously challenged to give a straight answer to any question and characters whose level of neurosis is beyond the therapy of any shrink. Strangeness prevails.

Getting the esteemed James L. Brooks aboard as writer-director doesn't seem to have lifted the level of humor nor social poignancy into the situation. It's many years since "Terms of Endearment" (1983) and "Broadcast News" (1987) put him on the A lists. "Spanglish" doesn't appear to be a ticket to return to that lofty position in the Hollywood hierarchy.

As the title suggests, the basis of the story is the collision of languages and cultures. It happens when Flor (Paz Vega), a single Mexican mother of one, takes her teenage daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) across the border to a new life in America. That means somewhere areound Beverly Hills, an area that Brooks and Sandler know well. ("Write about what you know.")

Struggling to make ends meet, a friend helps Flor interview for a job with the rich Claskys, whose mode of living derives from Husband and Daddy John's great success as the master chef of his fully owned restaurant. Wife and mother Deborah (Tea Leoni) is the total fruitcake conducting the interview for a general houseperson and babysitter for the kids, 9 year-old Georgie and heavyweight teen Bernice (Sarah Steele). Deborah's mother Evelyn (Cloris Leachman) plays the part of sometimes sober, sometimes not, overseer of the troupe. Give her half a chance, she'll steal the scene and maybe the furniture.

Anyway, fitting this flat-out exotic babe who can't speak a word of English into the household chemistry leads to situations of self-destruction, some new, some inherent. If Deborah always had an inclination to high-strung neuroses and a metabolic rate to challenge a rapper's, things are about to test the extremes. The question for us Leoni fans is whether fitting her fine and special talent into such Sandler-inspired hysteria was worth it. No doubt her agent knows.

Deborah, it turns out, is a takeover kind of gal. She's also thoughtless and mean, as demonstrated when she brings home a set of clothes for daughter Bernice. Only they're a size or two too small--her viciously uncaring way of motivating a little dieting. When she finally becomes aware that Flor has a kid, she insists she bring her to live with them when they retire to their Malibu estate for the summer. Falling in love with Cristina (who is also narrating the piece as voiced by Aimee Garcia), she takes her shopping without the knowledge or permission of the girl's mother. This turns into the opening of her crusade to turn the girl into herself.

As for Sandler, he's his usual tongue-tied, super-empathetic, sexless but always loving nerd of a guy. Qualities, all, to maintain his hold on his adoring public.

What I took away from this too long exposure to the Sandler mystique was that the person who spoke the straightest is the funniest. Yes, Cloris Leachman steals it every chance she gets. As for Paz, this exotic object of desire is destined for much bigger things. Facially, I see a resemblance to Penelope Cruz but her dimpled chin and statuesque figure is more dazzling. Leoni is amazingly conditioned as evidenced by a set of abs that any trainer would love. You can see from this what I was thinking about while watching this movie.

The narrative, strained through the Sandler set of devices, is often behaviorily disturbing, but one scene that works especially well is the speed translated conversation between John and housekeeper Flor. The flawless real-time duel of languages without a flub and the question of what should be translated and what not, is classic comedy. Would that Sandler and his TV-sitcom writer-director were up to creating more moments like it.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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