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Spanglish

For those artists whose careers move from small screen to big, there's always an inherent risk — the structure of television can become so deeply ingrained that often it's difficult to dislodge. Thus, films featuring TV stars can become too neat, too pat, with jokes waiting for the reassurance of a live audience. Which is why the best James L. Brooks movies are the most chaotic; his playful sense of disarray leads to characters and interactions that remain consistently fresh. Brooks worked throughout the '60s and '70s on some of the best TV programs of the era ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi"), and his sense of character and skill at gag-writing is unparalleled. But his films struggled against this neatness. He made a big splash in 1983 with his directorial debut Terms of Endearment, netting three Academy Awards. Since then, he's dabbled in feature pictures as he sees fit (besides his decades of TV work, being an executive producer of the "The Simpsons" contributes to his autonomy). He's only directed four movies in the past two decades, with Spanglish arriving in 2004, after a seven-year break. Even though he hasn't written for TV in nearly two decades, Brooks occasionally likes to keep his scripts a little too tidy — but here he delivers an appealing chaos of characters, all dealing with confused emotions and the fear of assimilation.

Spanglish follows two families. The Morenos are made up of mother Flor (Paz Vega) and daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), who left Mexico for America after Cristina's father disappeared. Flor finds work with the bourgeois Claskys: Deborah's (Tea Leoni) career is at a standstill, while her husband John (Adam Sandler) runs a successful restaurant, which got a four-star review naming him the best chef in America. They have two kids — with daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele) combating a weight problem — and a live-in grandmother (Cloris Leachman) who's a former jazz singer and current alcoholic. But the longer Flor works for the Claskys the more their families overlap and intermingle. When the Morenos move in to the Claskys' summer home, Deborah takes an interest in Cristina that annoys both Flor and Bernice. But the main trouble lies with Flor and John; she's not used to dealing with any man who talks so freely, and the two grow attracted to each other based on their mutual good parenting and easy chemistry. Meanwhile, Deborah is not herself of late, prone to emotional spells and erratic, late night absences. But Flor wants to keep her customs and ethnicity intact, and she becomes concerned when her daughter appears to be conforming to the Clatskys' upper-class milieu.

*          *          *

Spanglish was a December release, and with James L. Brooks' track record, it was probably hoped to be an Academy favorite. Unfortunately the film never found its audience. One issue was Tea Leoni's character, Deborah, who is so neurotic that some thought she strained credulity (although those more familiar with the personality type might consider it a spot-on performance). It's a challenging role that Leoni manages to humanize, but it's perhaps too easy to see her as the script's antagonist, which she simply is not. Instead, Deborah is a woman in mid-life crisis, one who isn't entirely sure what to do with herself and thus makes bad decisions and alienates the people around her. Nonetheless, the story makes it clear that this is Deborah at the lowest ebb of her life, and if there's anything that makes the character palatable, it's Brooks' smart dialogue and his fascination with people. At the halfway point, there's a show-stopping sequence: John finally has a moment of peace and makes himself a BLT, only to have Flor confront him about an inappropriately nice thing he's done for her child. The scene keeps growing until it reaches a conclusion that amazes with its movie smartness — it crackles. Spanglish also gives Adam Sandler the best role of his career, playing a sweetly decent guy with such grace that it suggests a screen-life beyond the diminishing returns of his recent comic fare. He's also the heart of the story, since the second half of the movie concerns his flirtations with Flor — their awkward courtship is one of the more endearing love stories of the last couple years. Spanglish is an emotionally messy film, and it leaves a lot unresolved. But that's for the best — it's what separates well-observed life from television.

Columbia TriStar presents Spanglish on DVD in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer John Seale, it looks sumptuous — though the blue-screen work during driving sequences is noticeable. The disc comes with a very frank commentary by Brooks, and editors Richard Marks and Tia Nolan, who talk at length about how the project was shaped through both the filmmaking and test-screening process (they test-screened the title 13 times). Brooks is very aware of how he works, and he offers clear comments on how the film was shot and his own methodology. Also on board are 12 deleted scenes with optional commentary by Brooks, Marks and Nolan (30 min.), the featurette "HBO First Look: The Making of Spanglish" (13 min.), "Casting Sessions" featuring optional commentary by Brooks (4 min.), "How to Make the World's Greatest Sandwich featuring Thomas Keller," which offers the recipe for the BLT in the film (perhaps cinema's most enticing on-screen sandwich) (4 min.), and bonus trailers, though no trailer for the film itself. Keep-case.
—DSH



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