Spanglish Review

The Admissions Department of Princeton University receives an application from Cristina Moreno. Asked to nominate the most influential person in her life, she names her mother Flor (Paz Vega) – no contest. After Cristina’s father left them, she and her mother travel “economy class” from Mexico to the USA, arriving in Los Angeles. After a while, Flor gets a job as a housekeeper in the home of top chef John Clasky (Adam Sandler), his wife Deborah (Téa Leoni), their two children and her mother-in-law Evelyn (Cloris Leachman). Cristina and Flor are embraced by the Claskys but at the risk of their sense of identity…

Many people both write screenplays and direct, but few of them are properly writer-directors, that is equally adept at both disciplines. Woody Allen, for example, began his career as a writer-who-directs. Later, as his visual style became more sophisticated (admittedly with the help of some top-flight cinematographers), he could be considered a writer-director…who acts. (Directors-who-write are much less common, but I’d suggest James Cameron as an example.) James L. Brooks is certainly a writer-who-directs. He has the ability to write engaging, well-structured storylines with sharp dialogue. But despite winning a directing Oscar for Terms of Endearment, his visual sense and his use of the camera is bland at best, and his pacing is slack, leading to running times unnecessarily around the two-and-a-quarter-hour mark. I’ll grant his ability with actors though.

Spanglish displays Brooks’s strengths and flaws. The shortcomings indicated above are all there: although the great John Seale’s camerawork glows, Brooks’s direction is no more than average, and the film goes on far too long. Tonally it’s more complex than the simple romantic comedy it might at first appear: despite many sharp lines it’s not an out-and-out comedy. The most compelling character is Deborah. Téa Leoni gives one of her best performances as a woman with little sense of self-worth after her company folds. She’s deliberately very annoying and controlling, but as the film progresses her neediness and insecurity become more and more apparent. Paz Vega (star of Sex and Lucia has to rely on body language for much of the film, as her character speaks nothing but unsubtitled Spanish until around the halfway mark. Despite his top-billing, Adam Sandler seems somehow incidental for much of the film, not even appearing until a quarter-hour has passed, and then introduced almost casually. He gives a low-key performance, seemingly following Jim Carrey’s excursions into more “adult” roles. In only a few scenes does he cut loose with his trademarked wild-and-crazy stuff. Brooks elicits fine performances from his child actors, particularly Shelbie Bruce and Sarah Steele. And meanwhile Cloris Leachman steals every scene she is in.

Brooks comes from the liberal wing of Hollywood, and you would be justified in suggesting that he glosses over some of the more problematic areas of his subject matter. There’s no hint of any racism, and everyone is nothing but welcoming to a woman who speaks no English. Also, the Clasky children are instantly accepting of the two newcomers to their household…no jealousy or tension of any kind? And would Cristina and Flor have any trouble with the authorities for being illegal immigrants? Maybe this would have extended an already overlong running time but it would have seemed more believable.

Spanglish is not Brooks’s best work (that would be Broadcast News for me) but it’s a pleasant two hours plus, certainly the work of a man with a more benevolent and warmer view of life than some of his fellow writer-directors. Cynics need not apply.

Spanglish is transferred to DVD in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced. The transfer is “mastered in High Definition” as per the back cover of the case, and I can’t fault it. The colours glow, especially the skin tones, blacks are solid and shadow detail excellent. It’s a tad soft, but that’s down to Seale’s camerawork: a hard, sharp look isn’t appropriate for this sort of film.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1. It’s not the most active mix by any means, being mostly dominated by dialogue from the centre channel. The surrounds are used for ambience and Hans Zimmer’s score, though the subwoofer is not called into use very much. As well as the English-language version, there’s also a French dub available, also in Dolby Digital 5.1. As with the other track, that leaves the Spanish dialogue alone and only dubs the English speech.

There are twenty-nine chapters. The DVD is encoded for Region 1 only. There are subtitles (in English or French) for the main feature only, regrettably not for the commentary or any of the extras. As I mention above, the Spanish dialogue is intentionally left unsubtitled.

Columbia has presented us with a good number of extras. First off is an audio commentary from James L. Brooks and editors Richard Marks and Tia Nolan. Brooks dominates the proceedings but the others chip in now and again. It’s an interesting and entertaining listen.

Next up are twelve deleted scenes, selectable individually via thumbnails or via a “Play All” link. Brooks’s commentary duties continue here, as he describes each scene. As usual with such material, you can tell why they were cut, as they would generally make an overlong film even longer. The deleted scenes are presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and run 30:44.

“HBO First Look: The Making of Spanglish” is more standard EPK stuff, consisting of interviews, clips from the film and some behind-the-scenes footage. This is in 4:3 (with the film clips letterboxed to 1.85:1) and runs for thirteen minutes.

Brooks appears on the soundtrack again, giving an optional commentary to 4:24 of video footage of casting sessions. As well as Shelbie Bruce, Sarah Steele and Paz Vega, we also see Victoria Luna, who plays the six-year-old Cristina in the early scenes. The footage is in 4:3 and contains a good few video artefacts.

After watching all the above, you may be feeling hungry, so I refer you to “How to Make the World’s Greatest Sandwich”, as eaten by Sandler in the film. Brooks comments again, telling us how he asked chef Frank Keller of The French Laundry to produce the perfect late-night snack. I’ve only seen two other DVDs with recipes amongst the extras (curious foodies are referred here and here) so this is a nice touch. It’s 4:3 again, running 4:11.

The extras are rounded off by trailers for other Columbia releases – Bewitched, Guess Who, House of Flying Daggers, Something’s Gotta Give, As Good As It Gets and Silverado – and the film’s shooting script, accessible in PDF format via a DVD-ROM drive. There’s no trailer for Spanglish itself, which is odd.

I wouldn’t claim Spanglish to be unmissable, but you could do far worse than spending a couple of hours with it. Columbia have provided a generally very good DVD, though the lack of subtitles for the extras is a regrettable and avoidable shortcoming.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 09:32:55

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