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No Me Gusta

The maid cleans up in Adam Sandler's spiceless comedy 'Spanglish'

By Richard von Busack

As suffused with authentic Latin tanginess as a Taco Bell, the dramedy Spanglish is a rare failure for director James L. Brooks (As Good As It Gets). Spanglish is--essentially--a romance between an illegal-alien maid and her American master. The latter is John (Adam Sandler), a successful restaurateur who has just been named the most important chef in the country by the Los Angeles Times. His new maid is Flor (Paz Vega, who looks like Penelope Cruz's little sister)--good-hearted, hard-working, so forth. The story is narrated in the form of an admissions essay to Princeton written by Flor's daughter, Christina (Shelbie Bruce). John is a hard-working dad without the malicious crudeness that is usual to Sandler's comedy. Hold back Sandler's rage, and his style is flabby and dull.

The wisecracking grandma, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), isn't just naughty and salty, she's an all-wise knife-twister. The dissatisfied mom, Deborah (Téa Leoni), isn't an adorable bundle of nerves, like Brooks' most memorable creation, Mary Tyler Moore's Mary Richards. Deborah goes from impulsive to infantile; it's a lethal role. Leoni shows off her well-trained body in a (literal) running joke about the constant packs of joggers in Bel Air. She's so athletic, there's nothing yielding about her, even in bed. Deb attacks her husband as if he's a climbing machine at the fitness center. She also nudges her daughter, Bernice (Sarah Steele), about her weight. There's a son, too, one more kid than Spanglish has room for. But John needs an extra child, in order to have two good reasons not to dump his wife and run off with Flor.

Spanglish is not a complete misfire. Brooks' time-tested sense of shtick is intact--everyone's got a routine here, even the dog. The scene of Christina simultaneously translating for Paz is as expertly timed as a vaudeville act. But John Seale's stuffy cinematography makes Los Angeles look about as subtropical as Duluth. While nobody expects the movies to get this stuff right, Brooks has an especially hazy view of what a maid's life might be like. She lives in some place called a barrio, which is staged as a street fiesta. Her $650 a month is treated like a fortune, which it isn't in Los Angeles. And Spanglish doesn't seem to know what it's like to ride a bus or go to a public school or live in a low-rent apartment.

Brooks' vision is patronizing, in the true sense of that overused word--he's blithely vague about what the underclass goes through. Leachman's Evelyn is Spanglish's official child-wrecker: a promiscuous mother who raised a promiscuous daughter. The real archmanipulator here, though, is the self-sacrificing heroine, Flor, who refuses to let her daughter cry--("One tear, and make it a good one")--and who snatches Christina out of private school. She's supposed to be the odd immigrant Latina in school--too bad Bruce plays Christina with the intonations of a charm-school grad. How else can you read the ending than that Flor felt her daughter was too Mexican to have a rich life?

Spanglish (PG-13; 131 min.), directed and written by James L. Brooks, photographed by John Seale and starring Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni and Paz Vega, plays countywide.

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From the December 22-29, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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