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James L. Brooks certainly knows comedy. With one of the most lengthy and prestigious résumés in Hollywood, his career has included such television classics as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, as well as an impressive group of feature films, including Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good As It Gets. Brooks' credentials are impeccable. However, it's hard to believe Adam Sandler would have been his first choice to play the lead in Spanglish. This role requires a sensitive actor with an artistic side to his personality. Sandler is a lot of things, but sensitive and artistic he's not.

A notorious womanizer from his days on the cast of Saturday Night Live, Sandler does indeed have a gentle side to his personality, but in Spanglish we're supposed to believe he's all gentle, as he plays a talented chef who gladly left the high-pressure restaurant scene in New York in favor of establishing a small-scale neighborhood restaurant in Los Angeles. But do we really believe Sandler for a second? I didn't buy him. And do we accept Sandler and Téa Leoni as a married couple? No way. These people are miles apart.

Leoni plays a high-energy business woman, now out of a job and racked with self doubt that she expresses with a demeanor akin to a steamroller. She's not an uncaring person, but she has no patience for anyone's problems but her own. The movie gives us no convincing reason to believe that Sandler and Leoni would ever have become a couple. To be fair, that's part of the film's point, that they've drifted apart and now have trouble relating to each other. But there would still be hints of their mutual attraction.

Brooks' As Good As it Gets benefited from the marvelous casting of Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, but here his comedy is crippled with an unconvincing duo. Thankfully, however, Spanglish gives us one additional lead character, played by Paz Vega (who first received international attention in Sex and Lucia) and she is wonderful. She plays the role of a domestic servant named Flor Moreno who works in the home of John and Deborah Clasky (Sandler and Leoni). At first the situation is ideal, even though Flor speaks no English. Deborah works hard to communicate and allows Flor to become a part of the family, although the movie also makes the point that Deborah does this more from fear of seeming insensitive than because of genuine concern. Eventually, however, the Clasky's head for their summer home on Ventura Blvd. with ocean waves crashing on the beach only a few short steps from their backdoor. Flor has no way to commute to the Clasky's new residence. Buses don't run from the Barrio to the beach houses on Ventura Blvd. So Deborah gives Flor the choice of either moving in with the Clasky's or losing her job.

This is a very difficult decision for Flor because she wants to maintain her independence. She also has a daughter, Christina (Shelbie Bruce). Flor is troubled at the idea of leaving the world she knows--the Barrio--and bringing her daughter to live in a subservient role in another family's home. But when faced with the prospect of being unemployed and unable to provide for her daughter, she grits her teeth and agrees to be a live-in servant--a decision she soons regrets as Deborah immediately annexes Christina, giving her presents and stealing her for shopping sprees.

Vega is wonderful in this role, but the role isn't without its own credibility problems--which arise when Flor and John find themselves attracted to each other. Flor's first reaction when seeing the sensitive John--who refuses to stand up to his own wife and cries about family matters--is to conclude that he might be crazy. The movie toys with this problem for only a few seconds--before discarding the hurdle entirely. Flor and John have the same concerns about their families and the same concerns about life in general. And they share these concerns in long talks in which they're gradually pulled closer together. Much depends on whether or not you buy this attraction ... and I didn't. Maybe the great Douglas Sirk (the famous director of '50s women pictures such as Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows) could have pulled off this storyline, but he would've turned it into a full-fledged melodrama, probably with a strapping Rock Hudson type in the lead (there's someone we could believe as a sensitive master chef!) As director Brooks lets this story (based on his own screenplay) drift toward territory normally tread by romance novels, the movie's comedy becomes mawkish.

While Spanglish contains many funny scenes, several courtesy of Cloris Leachman, who plays Deborah's mother, ultimately the story sinks into increasingly unconvincing romantic drama. Brooks is let down by his own weak script, as well as the horrific casting decision that placed Adam Sandler in the middle of this mess.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Movie Web site: Spanglish



Photos: © 2004 Columbia Pictures Industries. All rights reserved.