Early on in Spanglish John Clasky, a chef played by Adam Sandler, muses on the possibility of his restaurant becoming a four star establishment. He thinks it over and decides that “three and three quarter stars” would be more appropriate, after all this leaves room for improvement – and therefore something to aim for – whilst also being “good, solid”. Yet whilst it’s the character of John saying this, it’s impossible not to consider his creator, writer/director James L. Brooks, as this sums up his cinematic output to a tee. They may each have their passionate admirers, but for most of us Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets and now Spanglish are “good, solid” entertainment. They may, in some cases, win Oscars for their stars and creator, yet there’s nothing especially great about them. And they may also add up to an engaging two hours apiece, but they’re unlikely to ever make the “Ten Best” lists.
Spanglish sees Brooks in familiar territory. It’s another comedy-drama set in “white America” though this time seen through the eyes of an outsider. Paz Vega plays Flor, a non-English speaking Mexican immigrant who becomes maid to the Clasky family and thus witness to as many triumphs and dysfunctions as Brooks can squeeze into two hours. Sandler, as husband and father John, has the “emotions of a Mexican woman”. Wife Deborah (Téa Leoni) is an uptight, highly strung ex-businesswoman. Whilst daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele) and mother-in-law Evelyn (Cloris Leachman) have low self-esteem and a drink problem respectively. Of course, before long Flor is learning the language and becoming closer to the emotions resulting in the drama over spilling into her own life and that of her daughter (Shelbie Bruce).
Given the remoteness of the Clasky’s affluent lifestyle (giant house in Los Angeles, coastal holiday home in Malibu), this decision to view them as “alien territory” (as Flor puts it) is a welcome one. Yet this doesn’t mean that they have been dislikeable – as their counterparts often are in numerous Henry Jaglom pictures, no matter how indulgent they may be – rather Brooks continually tries to ingratiate them towards us. Hence Sandler’s presence in the lead role and a part – despite the family man dimensions – not too far removed from his earlier roles (though it is Flor who serves as the ingénue – as she puts it herself, “I am like a two year old”), plus Leachman doing kooky and dotty with far greater aplomb than she did in the dreadful The Beverly Hillbillies spin-off.
In doing so, however, he drastically reduces any dramatic balance and risks coming across as smug. Indeed, Spanglish can be viewed as made-to-order Academy Award magnet, a compilation of scenes designed to demonstrate his skills and those of his cast. Everyone gets their two big scenes – one comic, one dramatic – both of which can easily be imagined as a potential clip to accompany their name when a nomination is read out. And no doubt they would have done if Spanglish had been a bigger hit. Indeed, if we accept the continual onslaught of big emotions and heavy handed metaphors (plus the hideous framing device which allows us to know from the start that this is going to be about ‘life lessons’, whatever they may be), then Brooks and cohorts do them pretty well. It’s overcrowded, certainly – there’s enough drama to occupy a trashy miniseries – but never dull. Nor is it especially offensive (as these types of film have a tendency to be), though this may have been different had it won a number of Oscars. (Is this the reason why Broadcast News is my preferred Brooks movie?) But then it’s also the kind of picture which never genuinely excites the emotions, rather, as is typical for Brooks, it never really gets passed engaging.
As a new release Spanglish can’t help but disappoint in terms of its presentation. Certainly, it’s been transferred anamorphically from a clean print, as should be expected from a major studio release, but it’s also incredibly inky. As such the blacks hold little or no definition – especially noticeable during the night scenes or Vega’s close-ups, though everyone suffers from dead looking eyes – whilst the pink and red ends of the spectrum appear unusually pronounced resulting in a look that is unlikely to match what Brooks and cinematographer John Seale had intended. Thankfully, the soundtrack proves more successful with a fine DD5.1 offering. Though mostly dialogue based, the mix is a subtle one and faithfully transferred on disc. Indeed, there are no technical faults to speak of.
As for the extras, these are more hit and miss. The main commentary is largely disappointing despite Brooks’ being a jovial speaker. He’s accompanied by editors Richard Marks and Tia Nolan, yet their chat is peppered with annoying silences. Indeed, the latter two are barely there, whilst Brooks keeps his discussion to that of a love-in, proclaiming how great the music is or the young cast were, etc. etc. It’s the kind of thing that may work in small doses, but at two hours plus proves a little hard to take.
He’s far more agreeable when discussing the casting sessions or the deleted scenes. With these pieces he has only a limited amount of time to speak and as such gets straight to the point (why such-and-such was cast/why such-and-such was cut/where it all fits in, etc.) but also knows when to keep quiet and simply let us see the footage (though the commentaries are optional). That said, the third featurette which he accompanies is decidedly ephemeral as it is devoted solely to a sandwich Sandler makes in the movie.
Also on the disc we have an upbeat HBO “making of” entitled ‘On the Set of Spanglish’ which again goes for the “Adam Sandler’s great” – “Téa Leoni’s great” level of sycophancy, plus those with DVD-ROM capabilities have the option to peruse Brooks’ screenplay in its entirety.
All extra features, including commentaries, come with optional English and Spanish subtitles.