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Spanglish

As anyone who's lived any type of life is aware, attempts at cross cultural communication sometimes render the participating parties confused about what exactly has transpired. Misunderstandings resulting from barriers of language and culture tend to result in people having to suppose or assume much of what has gone down in a conversation and they sometimes find later that they agreed to something they had no idea they were even talking about or offended someone unintentionally. Such interactions can also reduce normally articulate adults to childlike sputterings and infantile gestures and the frustration of getting across basic messages frequently can have comic undertones and surprising consequences. We all know this of course since the visual arts frequently tap into this theme and now we have a movie to drive the point home, albeit perhaps unintentionally, by allowing us to experience the same sense of frustration from our theater seats. Spanglish is that film and left us looking around and shrugging our shoulders when it was all done, not quite sure if we had gotten the intended point, and feeling like we may have lost much of the message due to a bad translation.

Of course, since Spanglish is written and directed by James L. Brooks and is not a subtitled foreign film with subtleties and sensibilities that might be hard for lazy and unworldly Americans to comprehend, the resulting confusion cannot be explained away as cinematic touch. Brooks clearly is making some points about merging cultures, it's just hard to be sure exactly what they are. We suppose one message of the film is pretty clear which is that resisting the Americanization of one's child can be difficult for émigré parents who find themselves living within our borders, especially if the child comes from humble beginnings back home and is exposed to affluence. Another is that a parent's neurosis often results in their kids having to be wiser and more mature than their years. A third, we suppose, could be that being a good guy often results in your wife seeking solace in another man's bed. Still another is clearly that the sexy Latina maid will always be a more honorable and attractive character than the lady of the house. Kids can be sensitive, smart and cute. Pets can be loyal. Values should persevere over money. The elderly sometimes have wisdom to offer. Love prevails. So that's it then, its all there. Pretty standard stuff. But if you are going to put together this kind of time tested film package, why muck it up by making the characters and plot subtly nonsensical so that the audience is left shaking their heads like they would if they had just endured some impassioned negotiation in a non native language. Brilliant perhaps if that was the director's specific intent but we're pretty sure in this case that it wasn't.

In any event, Paz Vega, (star of Sex and Lucia and who is in real life, and plays in this film, one of the most caliente of ellas) takes a job as a maid working in upscale So Cal for Adam Sandler's wife Deborah. The trouble starts immediately when it becomes clear that this Deb character, played by Téa Leoni, is completely whacko. And not just in a self indulgent Southern California sort of way. She is completely over the edge to the point where she seems to have no redeeming features. Not that there aren't plenty of people just like her out there, especially in So Cal, but typically in films, some reason is given to either root for her, against her, or at least hope for some deserved resolution. In Spanglish none of these avail themselves. And then there is Sandler, who is supposed to be a serious and sympathetic chef and loving father, but who suffers from Bill Murrayitus in that you keep waiting for him to break out into his trademark humor or tantrums (which he actually does once or twice) so his attempts to also bring a non funny, understanding side to the table just adds to the confusion. Sandler, in fact, seems badly miscast and Leoni is so bizarre that you really don't ever understand anything about her or fathom Sandler's patience and supposed attraction to her. Cloris Leachman is on board as the supposedly drunk mother in law who never actually seems that inebriated but isn't much of a factor one way or the other anyway. The kids are great however, especially daughter Bernie (left, played by Sarah Steele), who takes after the somewhat dumpy Sandler rather than his fitness crazed spouse and clearly has had to rise above her mother's insecurities and bizarro act throughout her life but is on her way to being a special person. As a result she has formed a special tie with her father which is one of the few things that comes through pretty well. Bernie's good nature and personality is actually one of the best parts of this film.

The other good part of the film is Vega who does a convincing job delivering what is asked of her and not just because she is easy on the eyes although that certainly doesn't diminish the experience. The trouble is that she speaks only in Spanish for the first half of the film and since Brooks doesn't use the subtitles, we have only our own rudimentary knowledge of the language and the periodic translations of her daughter to help us figure out what type of person she is. We can tell she is a doting mother, prideful with a good heart complete with the latin hot blood and temper and, as she learns English and the movie moves along, we realize that her devotion to her daughter is what defines her. As Vega's daughter gets more Americanized and succumbs to the temptations of Deborah who, unsatisfied with her own dumpy child, is trying to project motherhood onto the cuter, thinner Cristina, this devotion looks like it might end up breaking Paz's heart somewhere down the road. However since the movie begins with a narration by Cristina who is now applying to Princeton and calling her mother her hero on the admission essay, we know it comes out ok. And since we know that from the start, the whole movie then, seems designed to lead up to Vega's inevitable romantic interlude with Sandler, who by the way looks goofy and middle aged somehow. We hope this is where the point of the story will emerge, but when their scenes together are mumbled through and unconsummated because Sandler is supposed to be such a good guy and she such a pious and pure maid, we are left unfulfilled in about five different ways. After he cooks her a yummy dinner, she tells him she loves him, pecks him on the cheek and scampers off into the night forever out of their lives and he mutters and mumbles and heads back into his mansion to care for his cheating, lying, crying lunatic wife. What has each learned from the encounter? What do they do now? All we find out is that five years later, Paz's daughter writes an articulate essay about her summer with the rich and neurotic. Not a very satisfying ending for romantic comedy fans and sort of a shrug your shoulder and say "Oh well I guess we must have missed something" kind of thing for the rest of us. Too bad there's already a movie called Lost in Translation.

 

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