Every few years, writer/director James Brooks makes another smart, sensitive movie about smart, sensitive people who love each other and drive each other crazy. In “Spanglish,” as in Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment, and As Good as it Gets, his characters are self-centered, immature, neurotic, needy, a little too smart for their own good, scared to change and more scared not to. They are not the usual one-endearing-quirk-apiece usually permitted in Hollywood films and his plots are not the usual “act one introduction, act two complication, act three resolution” usually required in Hollywood films. In other words, he makes movies for grown-ups.
In “Spanglish,” Brooks has taken one of the most overused movie set-ups, one that is even borderline offensive and turned it into something of delicacy and insight. Think you’ve seen the clueless white family humanized by an outspoken but cuddly minority too many times? That’s because you have. But this time is worth a look. This isn’t your children’s Bringing Down the House.
The almost unforgiveably beautiful Paz Vega plays Flor, a woman who brought her six-year-old daughter from Mexico to America in search of a better life, but managed to find Mexico in America by staying within the confines of an all-immigrant neighborhood for the next six years. Now she is looking for a better-paying job so that she does not have to be away from her daughter as much. So she ventures out of her safe little world with her cousin as interpreter, to apply for a job as a housekeeper with a wealthy, loving, but highly dysfunctional family.
The interview is with Deborah Clasky (Tea Leoni). Deborah’s company closed down and she is spinning out of control as a full-time mother. When Flor’s cousin walks into a glass door, Deborah somehow believes that is is appropriate to (1) say “I’m not mad” and (2) thrust a $20 bill into her hand. Flor may not speak English, but she knows that (1) they have agreed to pay her an enormous amount of money, more than she had been making in two jobs, and (2) there is a lot she does not know about how they do things, but she has something to teach them, too, starting with how to pronounce her name.
The Claskys rent a beach house for the summer, and the only way for Flor to keep her job is to bring her daughter to live with them. This presents enormously difficult issues of class and money and boundaries and values. A lot of complications and hurt feelings — and some very intensive video English lessons and some even more intensive life lessons later, everyone has to face some tough decisions.
Parents should know that the movie includes a very explicit sexual situation and other sexual references, including adultery and promiscuity. Characters drink, including drinking to cope with being angry and sad, and one character has an alcohol abuse problem. Characters use very strong language and there are many tense and unhappy family confrontations. A strength of the movie is the positive portrayal of intelligent and courageous Latina women.
Families who see this movie should talk about what Flor, John, and Deb were looking for from each other. Why did Deb buy Bernie clothes that were too small for her? Why did Brooks choose to tell the story through a college application essay?
Families who enjoy this film will also appreciate Brooks’ other films as well as the television shows he helped to write, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi.