Los Angelenos Play Themselves


Despite the cross-cultural harmony promised by its title, Spanglish never budges from its side of the border—or from its side of a Bel Air mansion gate, for that matter. Try as it might to adopt the perspective of its fish-out-of-water heroine, gorgeous Mexican domestic and single mother Flor (Paz Vega), James L. Brooks’s sour comedy is mainly determined to sound a warning from the fed-up beta males of moneyed Los Angeles to their depressed, pampered, bitch-on-wheels wives: Be nice! Or I’ll fuck the maid.

Abandoned by her husband, Flor moves with her young daughter, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), to a Latino enclave of L.A. that allows her to get by without speaking a word of English. Some years later, seeking work as a maid, she ends up with the Claskys: celebrated chef John (Adam Sandler), his raging psycho wife Deborah (Téa Leoni), two cute kids, and Deborah’s live-in alcoholic mother (Cloris Leachman, still deep in her Bad Santa stupor).

Bourgeois sitcom that it is, Spanglish uses schadenfreude as bait—there are few things easier to sell to a mass audience than the unhappiness of rich folk, and the Claskys are up to their eyeballs in problems of luxury. When she’s not working out or shopping, Deborah spends her time threatening to have a breakdown, inadvertently humiliating her chubby daughter, and contemplating adultery. As noble as his wife is thoughtless, John is tormented by a four-star review, convinced that he’ll be spoiled by success (and who doesn’t know the feeling?). Flor doesn’t start learning English until a few months into the job and remains unsubtitled throughout—though bilingual Cristina is often on hand to translate (she also narrates, in the guise of a Princeton admissions essay). Language barrier notwithstanding, the audience gladly sides with the hired help over the lady of the house—its sympathies fixed from Deborah and Flor’s first scene together, when the former attempts to parse the etymology of the latter’s name: “What I walk on, right?”

Deborah’s shrewishness provides a convenient opening for Flor and John to drift closer with conscience relatively intact. Usually a dead-on comic, Leoni exerts an unaccountable amount of energy making a hateful character easier to hate. (That woman-on-top sex scene defies belief, and should really be studied by the filmmaker’s therapist—it’s worth noting that Brooks recently went through a divorce.) Brooks’s one stroke of inspiration is to appoint Sandler the embodiment of reason—which also serves to emphasize the overall misogyny. Unlike Leoni, Sandler is given free rein, and as in Punch-Drunk Love, he’s an oddball but entirely credible romantic hero: sweet, kind, even sexy, not least in his unpredictable fits of impacted rage (in one archetypal eruption, he threatens to “set my hair on fire and punch myself in the face”). The beauty of Sandler’s performance—a superbly modulated suite of crestfallen groans and grimaces—is he often seems to be reacting not just to his crazy wife but also to the dismal movie he’s stuck in.

As pedestrian as its marital and parental conflicts may be, Spanglish utterly crumbles when it probes matters of cultural identity. The movie is a clueless liberal’s easy fantasy —an illegal-immigration fable with an opulent backdrop (who says being a maid is hard work?) and a happy ending where making it in a foreign culture and retaining your sense of self are not mutually exclusive. Without trying, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle had more to say about assimilation. Spanglish lauds Flor for resisting the temptations of the melting pot, but her prized identity is an abstraction the movie never deigns to explore.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 7, 2004

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