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SPANGLISH

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni, Paz Vega, Cloris Leachman, Shelbie Bruce, Sarah Steele
Director:  James L. Brooks
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  129 Minutes
Release Date:  April 5, 2005

"I'm gonna have to learn 'you must learn English' in Spanish."

Film ***1/2  

Some films offer a roller coaster ride of emotions; Spanglish is more of a gentle merry-go-round through them.  It doesn't jerk you violently one way or another, but allows the humor, warmth, heartache and romance to gently wash over you like a spring breeze.  It's the kind of movie you want to reach out to and pull close to your heart.

Writer/director James L. Brooks has an uncanny knack for finding the comedy in tragedy and the tragedy in comedy, and I think maybe the secret is that he doesn't go too far in either direction.  His best films don't have you guffawing like a donkey from start to finish, nor going through a box of tissues.  Like his master chef character, he carefully stirs in small amounts of each until the seasoning is just right.

Spanglish is essentially a look at an American family through an outsider's point of view.  She is Flor (Vega), a Mexican single mother who, with her daughter Christina (Bruce), make their way into the United States for better opportunities.  Flor wishes for her and her daughter to remain ostensively Latin, living and working in the barrio in Los Angeles, but eventually takes up a job working for the Claskys as a housekeeper.

She speaks no English and the Claskys no Spanish, but as much for her as for those of us in the audience who understand the language, they are a strikingly offbeat family.  The mother Deborah (Leoni) is a mass of tension and crises that frequently break through her mask of control.  The father John (Sandler) is a calm kindhearted man dealing with the pressures of his neurotic wife and being named best chef in America at the same time.  Deborah's mother Evelyn (Leachman) was a one time jazz sensation turned professional alcoholic.

The language barrier, needless to say, is only the beginning.  But for Flor, the situation grows more complicated when the family decides to rent a beach house for the summer and invite her and her young daughter to live with them for three months.  Christina can't help but be influenced by the highly Americanized Claskys, which is something she's tried to avoid.

That is really only the beginning of the story, which is large and roomy enough for many inviting twists and turns.  The film is constantly surprising, from the comedy (Leoni and Sandler have the funniest sex scene in recent memory) to the tender expressions of loneliness between Sandler and Vega.  I have to say I've never seen Adam Sandler offer a more touching and fully realized performance as he does here, and that includes his critically acclaimed turn in Punch Drunk Love.

Paz Vega, who also starred in Sex and Lucia and had an unforgettable small role in Talk To Her, is a revelation in this movie.  Not only is she one of the most beautiful women alive, she brings an energy and vitality to the role of Flor that makes you believe that, habla or no habla, she has the ability to break through and touch hearts and win minds.   She certainly does that with the audience.

I'd be remiss if I closed this review without praising Tea Leoni...her work as Deborah really has to be seen to be believed.  She is constantly like a spring about to burst out of coil; her whole body is alive with tics of nervous tension; her voice a humorous expression of a woman trying to maintain control but not always succeeding.  It's over the top, to be sure, but in an entirely good way...none of her manic energy goes to waste here.

There are so many beautiful and wondrous moments I want to talk about within this movie, but I have to accept that by doing so, I would only offer clumsy recreations of scenes that achieve a near poetic perfection and emotional truthfulness.  So instead of going for one of those, I'll share my favorite comic moment instead...it's when a flustered Flora uses Christina to translate an impassioned speech to John, where her daughter follows her around speaking the words and waving her arms and hands in the same broad gestures as her mother.  It's a beautifully funny bit of comic timing between adult actor and child actor that had me in hysterics.

Spanglish is, simply put, an effervescent slice of life that celebrates the things that make us all different, but celebrates even more what makes us the same.

Video ****

This is a bright, sunny film that translates well to DVD courtesy of Columbia Tri Star's terrific anamorphic transfer.  Images throughout are bright, colorful and well detailed, with no visible grain, compression or artifacts to spoil the viewing experience.  Wonderfully done.

Audio ***

Though mostly a dialogue oriented film, the 5.1 sound is lively and dynamic, thanks to some high energy scenes between the actors balanced against some quiet and low key moments.  Rear channels aren't used much, but the front stage sounded well balanced and clean throughout.

Features ****

The extras start with a commentary track featuring Brooks and his editors...it's an informative and often humorous listen.  There is an HBO making-of special, 12 deleted scenes with optional commentary, casting session videos with optional commentary, DVD ROM extras, a gallery of trailers, and a bit on how to make the world's greatest sandwich featuring Thomas Keller.

Summary:

I'm absolutely in love with this movie.  Beautifully written and wonderfully acted, Spanglish is a film that will find your heart and your funny bone at the same time.  This can be counted amongst James L. Brooks' best works.

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