James L. Brooks, executive producer of “The Simpsons” who also moonlights as an Oscar-winning writer-director, could not have chosen a more cliché plot line for his latest film, Spanglish: a vivacious, non-English speaking Latina maid falls in love with her rich, white boss while her child is slowly assimilated against her wishes. But Spanglish was crafted by the hands of a master and the potentially nauseous subject matter is handled with grace and aplomb.
Flor (Paz Vega), an illegal immigrant and overprotective mother, takes a job as maid for the Clasky family to keep an eye on her daughter, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), at night. The film is structured with voiced-over excerpts from Cristina’s college entrance essay about her mother. The idea seems at first a little cheesy—the narration smacks of the immature musings of an over-achieving high schooler—but Brooks, great scribe that he is, somehow manages to make the words mean something. It actually becomes one of the strengths of the film: when Cristina asserts towards the end, “though your acceptance will thrill me—it won’t define me. I am my mother’s daughter,” a lump the size of a best screenwriting Oscar wells up in your throat.
The emotional center of the film is the burgeoning romance between Flor and John Clasky (Adam Sandler). The pair’s connection could’ve easily been portrayed as a Love Actually-esque rumination on the power of love to overcome language, but Brooks is more original than that—the thing that connects these two very different people is their similar sensibilities. This is what makes Spanglish such a good film. Its plot speaks in the language of a made-for-TV movie, only it foregoes the hyper-melodrama and soap operatics for subtle realism. You’ll see sitcom style antics but they’ll seem like real situations for real characters that you care about. The delicate balance of it all is just quite stunning—Brooks is one hell of a filmmaker.
As the films roll along you’ll think it’s the same old Sandler—calm, nice guy prone to atomic burst of anger—but as John Clasky he proves once and for all that he’s got dramatic chops. Sandler is beginning to mature into an excellent actor, balancing the heavy drama with nuanced cool, and the comic—well, he never really had a problem with that. At one point Brooks even adds a little meta-joke about the Sandler character: annoyed with one of his employees Sandler bursts into one of his classic “the price is wrong—bitch” fits of anger and then calmly says to his confused employee, “that’s right—that was an unusual way to make myself understood.” While his performance probably won’t garner him many awards, Sandler will probably see a few on his shelf if he keeps taking these types of roles.
Sandler, though quite good, is mildly decent compared to the stellar cast around him. Tea Leoni pulls off an incredible feat: the Deborah Clasky character is manic, egotistical, with absolutely no redeemable qualities yet somehow she brings a warmth and humanity to the character—you don’t hate her at the end of the movie. Vega, star of Spanish hits Sex Y Lucia and Talk to Her, stubbornly refuses to make Flor a type character, replacing the ignorant, meek characteristics of the non-English speaking servant with nobility and confidence.
Part Telemundo, part Imitation of Life, Spanglish seems to deal mostly with the inevitable cultural clash between Mexican immigrants and Americans. Still, it plays itself out carefully, never dabbling in Manichean dramatics to make banal statements about assimilation. It doesn’t make light of the cultural clash, but it is never too didactic. With natural dialogue and fantastic performances, Brooks is able to show us the common situations Mexican immigrants face and how funny they can be.
With Spanglish, Brooks has proven once again that he’s one of the best filmmakers of our time: the balance of comedy and drama here is no small feat. But the real achievement is the writing. With prosaic gems ranging from sweet (“they should name a gender after you”) to damned clever (“lately your low self-esteem is just good common sense”), Brooks is almost guaranteed a best original screenwriting nod come Oscar time. Oddly, he’s able to do this in with one of those heart-warming, uplifting movies that could easily replace your favorite sitcom one week as a “very special presentation.”