There was a time, back in the fifties, when the families in American sitcoms were determinedly normal and, in the title of one of the most popular examples, father always knew best. Those days are long gone, as is demonstrated decisively by James L. Brooks’ new movie, which might be described hopefully by its makers as a dramedy but is really nothing more than an elongated situation comedy with a strong dose of political correctness. In “Spanglish,” the well-heeled California clan called the Claskys is decidedly dysfunctional; not only is daddy John (Adam Sandler)–though sensitive and well-meaning (his soulful, almost feminine side is demonstrated in his profession: he’s not merely a chef, but one called by the Times the best chef in the world)–essentially ineffectual (a softer vision of the clueless, obtuse fellow familiar from today’s TV half-hours), but (more unusually for this genre) mommy Deborah (Tea Leoni) is positively unhinged. (Only the kids, a chubby daughter and her younger brother–the latter of whom goes pretty much ignored throughout–are reasonably well-grounded.) The voice of adult reason here comes not from the parents, or even from Deborah’s live-in mother Evelyn (Cloris Leachman)–a chirpy old once-upon-a-time singer who drinks heavily and, like a refugee from “The Golden Girls,” is adept with barbed remarks–but from the clan’s newly-hired maid Flor (Paz Vega), an illegal Mexican immigrant who’s refused to learn a word of English even though she’s been in L.A. for years and is determined that her daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) won’t be corrupted by Deborah’s baleful cultural as well as personal influence. (Deborah, a fitness-obsessed jogger, humiliates her own overweight daughter Bernice, played by Sarah Steele, and takes a shine to the svelter Cristina instead, driving her off on trips without mommy’s permission, buying her clothes, coloring her hair and even securing her a scholarship at an exclusive–read WASPish–school.) Matters come to a head during the summer, when Flor and Cristina move in with the Claskys at their seaside vacation home and Deborah’s persistent intrusions cause a rift between Flor and her daughter. A further complication involves a tentative attachment between Flor and John, who’s not only increasingly concerned about his wife’s attitude toward Bernice but devastated when it turns out Deborah is having an affair on the side.
On the surface this might seem a bit edgier than what you’d find in average TV fare, but the distinction is finer than one might imagine. Apart from the Deborah character–which is drawn far more starkly than the small screen would tolerate (and played so ferociously by Leoni that one half-expects a rubber room and straitjacket not too far in her future)–everything else in “Spanglish” is oddly jokey and laid-back, with the obligatory dose of sentimentality and the concluding “life lesson” so beloved of network sitcom scriptwriters. Precisely what that lesson is, however, isn’t entirely clear. If you took the political message of the picture to an extreme, Brooks would appear to be saying that our emotionally sterile, materialistic society needs to be taught the real values of family and friends by those who come into the country illegally and refuse to be tainted by its modern corruptions. (In which case what he would seem to be recommending as the answer to our national maladies would be to open our southern borders unconditionally and welcome the tide that would follow, respecting an utter refusal to assimilate as a sign of a commitment to principles to which we should all aspire.) But it seems unlikely that the writer-director has thought through the implications of his narrative to so bald a conclusion. Brooks probably just wants us to sympathize with a “little person” confronted with the unsavory prospect of seeing her child lose her identity and sense of what’s right by surrendering to the seductions of wealth and acceptance. But that nice message is muddled by the framing device he’s chosen to tell the story–an application letter to Princeton University in which the older Cristina lauds her mother as the most important influence in her life and proudly recounts the episode with the Claskys as evidence. It’s not just that the “flashbacks” to the earlier years seem decidedly contemporary; as far as one can tell, Brooks doesn’t even attempt to give a period feel to the body of the picture. The larger problem is that by pandering to the diversity goals of an elite college, the girl seems to be buying into, and even manipulating, the very establishment thinking that her mother’s story is supposedly an uplifting antidote to. At its core “Spanglish” is thus intellectually incoherent; it fails to translate its general good intentions into a narrative that makes sense.
Yet even with all the inherent problems, the picture isn’t an unpleasant experience. Brooks tosses in some witty lines, as you’d expect from his previous work, and while his direction is a bit slack and desultory, the picture remains likable, if slightly flat. And though Leoni goes into absolute overdrive trying to give Deborah the obsessive-compulsive frenzy the character demands, the other cast members are more controlled and affably pleasant–so much so, in fact, that it’s almost as though Leoni has wandered in from a different movie, and a very heavy drama at that. Sandler manages to jettison his crazy manic-guy persona completely; if anything, he’s entirely too relaxed as the over-accommodating paterfamilias. Leachman nails the comfortable part of Deborah’s glib mother, though the combination of brittleness and concern doesn’t tax her much, and Bruce and Steele are both spunky and credible as the two daughters. (The scene toward the close in which Bruce attacks her mother for supposedly ruining her life is very well done, even if it doesn’t mesh terribly successfully with the lighter moments surrounding it.) And best of all, Spanish star Paz Vega is both luminously attractive and genuinely moving as the hard-working, principled Flor. She gives the story a grounding that seems plausible at the time, even if it doesn’t survive the weight of retrospective analysis. Thomas Haden Church shows up briefly as the realtor with whom Deborah has her affair; if you blink you’ll miss him, so this is hardly a bookend to his career-restoring turn in “Sideways.”
On its admittedly minor level, “Spanglish” can provide a couple of easygoing, well-intentioned hours of entertainment to undemanding viewers–especially female ones–who might be attracted to it. (It could certainly serve as a restful respite after some heavy hours of Christmas shopping.) But to anyone who gives it a second thought, this paean to motherly strength in the face of temptation is likely to seem too sappy and dramatically confused for comfort.