A review of “Spanglish” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for language and some adult situations

Run Time: 2 hours, 11 minutes

 

 

James L. Brooks understands human nature and perpetually packages it with jocular finesse. Think Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets.  With Adam Sandler standing at the helm Brooks steers this story of colliding cultures into smooth dramedy waters.

The urban fairy tale begins with Flor (Paz Vega), who comes to America from Mexico determined to make a better life for herself and her spirited daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce). Fate lands her in the lap of the well-to-do Claskys, a dysfunctional L.A. family who desperately need order in their lives. 

Mom Deborah (Tea Leoni) is a high-maintenance neurotic who would benefit from a regular dose of Ritalin.  Husband John (Sandler) is spending too much time at his elite L.A. eatery earning coveted culinary stars. 

Rounding out the Clasky household is daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele), a likeable but sensitive teen, younger brother Georgie (Ian Hyland) and grandma Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), a former songstress who hits the bottle a lot more often than the high notes.

The language barrier is just one of Flor’s quandaries with the Claskys. John is running out of excuses for the lady of the household and it’s wearing on the marriage. Deborah is wounding Bernice with insensitive comments regarding her weight while keeping herself in obsessive racehorse condition.  When the Claskys insist that Flor and Cristina bunk with them for a summer in Malibu, cultural crossover turns civilized nightmare.

This is a clever ensemble piece that by and large works. Brooks’ snappy script tempers its feel-goodness with an authentic mean streak that keeps things real. Mental illness, fragile mother-daughter bonds, low self-esteem, career vs. family, and competition for affection all get their day in the sun.

Leoni and Sandler are terrific, as is the va-va-voomish Vega.  Leachman deserves an Oscar nod for her geriatric posturing and keen wisdom.  The thorny issue of masters and servants keeping in lock-step is awkwardly omnipresent but handled with a measure of dignity.

I laughed long and hard at the sociological missteps of the Clasky family.  For most of its running time Spanglish hits the right notes, with the oh-so-glaring and unfortunate exception of a misguided romance that tacks on a superfluous twenty minutes that detracts from a fine narrative flow.