Hola, Qué Tal?
by Elbert Ventura

Dir. James L. Brooks, U.S., Sony

For the last 20-odd years, James L. Brooks has compiled an oeuvre whose defining feature has been its shallow conception of cinema’s possibilities. After creating The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, Brooks began directing movies but took his TV eye with him. Terms of Endearment, his debut feature, was a creaky splicing of eccentric sitcom and terminal-illness soap, a combination that, of course, won an Academy Award for best picture. Mistaking fraudulent storytelling and facile emotion for compassion and humanism, moviegoers and critics have more than just given Brooks a free pass—they’ve enabled his elevation to Hollywood royalty, making him one of the few American directors given autonomy by a major studio.

Brooks may well be an emblem for what’s wrong with American prestige pictures, a literal-minded peddler of pieties and cheap laughs who, in Pauline Kael’s memorable judgment, makes movies “with both eyes on the audience.” Spanglish, his latest film, is the apotheosis of his disposable craft. Seven years in the making, the movie cost an astonishing $100 million to make, a ridiculous sum even taking into account that its complacent characters swim in privilege in their L.A. manse. (Forget the polarizing polemics of the past year—if you really want to get someone to hate America, this is your movie.) The bland audience-flattery of past Brooks movies is still here, but lathered on top are healthy helpings of misogyny and misguided political correctness—a paradoxical combination that hints at the movie’s deftness at insulting the intellect.

How do you rescue a movie that’s framed as a college essay by a plucky young woman? Well, you don’t. After its risible opening—Princeton admissions officers rifling through applications under cloying voiceover—the movie only sinks lower. Spanglish is told through the eyes of Christina (Shelbie Bruce), a Mexican girl brought to America by her mother, Flor (Paz Vega). That we never really understand how Flor’s husband could ever leave a gorgeous saint like her is only the first of the movie’s many implausibilities. Upon relocating to L.A., Flor gets a job working as a maid for the Claskys. John (Adam Sandler), the breadwinner, runs a four-star restaurant; during the course of the film, this model of decency will also be named the best chef in America. Meanwhile, his wife, Deborah (Tea Leoni), is an oblivious basket case who treats her children like shit, her husband like a punching bag, and her mother (Cloris Leachman) like a worthless drunk. Guess which of the two Brooks identifies with?

“Every family needs a hero,” says the movie’s icky tagline, and Brooks clearly casts John as his. Made amid Brooks’s divorce, Spanglish all but leaks bitterness. Leoni, one of our most gifted (and woefully underused) comic actors, is saddled playing a hateful, narcissistic harpy who pounds away at her patient husband. In defense of the character, Brooks nobly offered the New York Times, “Who can speak for Deborah Clasky? I can!” No duh—you made this monster, Frankenstein. The same article explicitly raised the specter of Brooks’s personal life contaminating his portrayal of the struggling couple, speculation that Brooks quashed: “It’s not a personal picture.” Personal or not, his portrait of a marriage on the brink is one of the most horribly lopsided ever filmed.

The movie’s idea of suspense lies in the moral conundrum that thousands of rich men wrestle with everyday: “Do I get it on with the help?” As Flor, Vega walks around in clingy dresses and exudes maternal compassion, a mixture of sexpot and Mother Earth that’s easy to watch and hard to swallow. If John plays like Brooks’s narcissistic alter ego, then Flor is his ultimate Angeleno fantasy, an impossibly sexy woman who speaks no English and nurtures hurting souls. And she even picks up after you! John gazes longingly at Flor but never dreams of making a move despite his wife’s spiral into self-absorbed hostility. An opening for hanky-panky materializes in the form of Deborah’s confession of her own indiscretions. Nobility—and chastity—wins the day though; despite their obvious love for one another, Flor and John pull away at the last minute, preserving their honor and the audience’s undying admiration. That John—what a mensch!

Typically a saving grace of Brooks’s movies, the performances here never rise above the level of the material. Brooks has always painted with broad strokes, mistaking quirkiness for soul, but the characterizations here reach cartoon proportions. Almost everyone in Spanglish acts like they’re in a sketch, from Leoni’s frazzled thrashings to Leachman’s overripe zingers (they all but come with imaginary rim-shots). How odd that Sandler gives the most relaxed performance of them all. Then again, “performance” is stretching it—most of the time, Sandler seems to be playing a version of his laidback, good-guy self. When his big scenes come, he can’t hit the high notes—he simply doesn’t have the tools for it.

If Spanglish’s representation of marriage and American domesticity are enough to earn our dismissal, its vision of immigrant parenthood should earn our contempt. In an outrageous denouement, Flor withdraws Christina from a private school, where she has a scholarship thanks to the Claskys, for fear that she is losing her daughter—and that her daughter is losing her identity. Christina rightly kicks and screams, but Flor is unmoved. That she eventually gets accepted to Princeton is Brooks’s way of telling us, “See? It all worked out.” Brooks’s fetishization of multiculturalism perverts the impulse that compels people to seek refuge in a new country. Would a parent really deprive their child a superior education in the name of preserving “authenticity”? It doesn’t take a parent to see that Flor’s decision not only subverts the purpose that motivates most immigrants—to ensure a brighter future for their children—but makes a mockery of it. (Should immigrants who send their children to the schools of rich Anglos hang their heads in assimilationist shame?) As someone who can relate—I came to the U.S. around Christina’s age—I found Brooks’s message breathtakingly clueless, grounded in the kind of paternalism that gives liberalism a bad name. This is the immigrant experience seen through the eyes of white liberal guilt.