"Spanglish" is a film that seems at once both overdone and incomplete. There's at least one storyline more than the film can sustain, and yet none of them seem quite finished. It's as though James L. Brooks, who wrote as well as directed, fell too much in love with what he'd written and couldn't face cutting anything. And yet because Brooks is so good, so talented (think back to "Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News"), there's a great deal of wit and power here too, particularly in individual scenes. At its best this is a film of moments, and those moments are very good indeed.
"Spanglish" begins with the admissions officers at Princeton reading applicants' essays; the one we will follow was written and is told in voiceover by Cristina, who in her occasional narrations in the course of the film will tell us about the defining moment in her life. Cristina (played at about age ten by Shelbie Bruce) is the only daughter of a Mexican single mother, Flor Moreno (Paz Vega), who sneaks them across the border to Los Angeles, where after six years in the barrio she has not yet learned any English, but when necessary her daughter - the light of her life - serves as interpreter. To find more money she applies for a job as maid to the wealthy Clasky family: John (Adam Sandler), Deborah (Tea Leoni), their two children and Deborah's mother (Cloris Leachman). The film is the story of what happens in the Clasky household during the course of a year.
John, played so low-key by Sandler it's a wonder he doesn't have narcolepsy, is the owner and chef of an excellent L.A. restaurant, which in the course of the film is given a four-star rating by the New York Times, describing him as the finest chef in the United States - a disaster for John, who was hoping for just three and a half stars so he could go on being what he loves best - a neighborhood restaurant. No such luck. Leoni's Deborah, who recently lost her own job and must now be a full-time mom, is a control freak who's wound tighter than a violin string; Roger Ebert describes her in his review as "like an explosion at the multiple personalities factory." She is cruel to her pudgy 12-year-old daughter and abusive to John.
But Flor is a woman so grounded in her values that in spite of everything Deborah does - sneaking Cristina away, buying her expensive gifts, arranging for a private-school scholarship - she retains her own self-worth. Deborah's treatment of John is something else, though; Brooks has given her just about every bad trait in the book this side of the Wicked Witch of the West. It skews the film badly to have to look through all her acts and mannerisms to find anything worthwhile, though it's apparent that Brooks intends her to attract at least a little sympathy. He simply hasn't found a way to let her show it to us.
Paz Vega, who looks like Penelope Cruz's prettier sister, has a near-miss encounter with Sandler at a crucial point in the film, but Sandler, in a one-note part, simply cannot overcome his on-screen blandness (a blandness that worked to perfection in "Punch Drunk Love" and "50 First Dates"), and so we're left with an incomplete anchor to the plot. I think Brooks, in trying to avoid a clichéd climax to the film, has just let the air out of it instead. Nevertheless, there are moments that are brilliant and scenes, even whole sequences, that are perfect. These days, that's saying a lot.