All You Can Eat

James L. Brooks serves up too much of a good thing in Spanglish

Dec 15, 2004 at 4:00 am
In Spanglish, which is less a story than a snapshot of a crumbling marriage populated by sitcom characters, Adam Sandler plays John Clasky, an average man with an above-average life. With his burgeoning double chin always covered in a slight shadow of stubble, he's a celebrated chef who runs his own fabulously successful restaurant in Beverly Hills and has a beautiful wife named Deborah (Téa Leoni) hell-bent on keeping hers the body of a twenty-year-old. He's also the father of two wise-beyond-their-years children named George (Ian Hyland) and Bernice (Sarah Steele), and he lives in a modestly palatial Westwood home in which there's room enough to stash his alcoholic mother-in-law, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), without much bother.

But beneath the perfect surface, trouble roils: Deborah's body may be in great shape, but it's all that remains from John and Deborah's early days as a married couple; she has no time for John and, ultimately, no need for him either, except as provider for a pampered lifestyle. (Even during lovemaking, he's an afterthought.) More shallow than a kiddie pool, she even seems to loathe her children: She taunts Bernice by buying her clothes too small for her ample frame and ignores George altogether, except to tell him she's angry with him -- for what reason, we have no idea. Precisely why John and Deborah are married at all remains a mystery; they're barely in like, much less in love.

Into this cauldron of spite and ennui enters Flor (Paz Vega), the mother Bernice always wanted and the wife John craves. She's everything Deborah isn't -- chiefly, a human being possessing decency, compassion and love -- and she has the one thing Deborah wants more than anything: a beautiful twelve-year-old daughter (Shelby Bruce) she can take shopping for fab outfits. Flor is gorgeous, too, as Deborah points out when interviewing her to be the Claskys' housekeeper, only she doesn't mean it as a compliment. "It's more of an accusation," says Evelyn, mournfully eyeing the martini glass she's emptied in the middle of the afternoon. In this house full of envy and malevolence and bickering, it is all John can do to keep from losing his temper, losing his mind and losing what's left of his soul.

And in this role, Sandler is perfect; he always is when asked to play the put-upon man who feels more than he will ever permit himself to say. John, like Sandler's Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love or even Robbie Hart in The Wedding Singer, is on the outside a sweet, gentle man who would hurt no one and help anyone; his relationship with Bernice, especially, is lovely, that of the father who would rather celebrate his daughter's "odd" qualities than demand she look and act like all the other boring stick figures in Westwood. But when pushed or pulled in the wrong direction by the wrong set of hands, John will explode, shouting expletives at no one and everyone -- a burst of relief and release, lest he turn inside out. He's the kind of man who fears four-star reviews from the New York Times' food critic because of the pressure such praise would bring; better to get three and a quarter stars, just enough to allow him to exist "below the radar," which would be, for him, "a good, solid life," where no one could or would bother him.

Writer-director James L. Brooks, a maker of solid and decent movies (among them Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets) that occasionally play like long sitcom pilots with too much heart for their own good, adores John and wants the best for him, which is why he puts Flor on the chef's plate; she's the wife he deserves and the life he demands. He makes the choice rather clear, for John and Flor and the kids and the audience. Brooks so vilifies Deborah, she's not even a character, just a troll who speaks in gibberish -- the nonstop rantings of a woman so displeased with her life, and most likely herself, she talks and talks and talks so nobody can interrupt her and dash to pieces all of her selfish nonsense. That is why Spanglish never quite works, despite the wonderful performances or the decency in the screenplay's margins: We care so little about Deborah -- in fact, we spend the entire movie wishing she would disappear altogether -- that when the movie's emotional climax comes, and never seems to end, we've already made the characters' decisions for them.

Spanglish is just good enough that you might wish it were better. It's too long in spots, too repetitive and obvious in others; the movies shouldn't be as sloppy and dull as life, even when they try to imitate what they believe to be the audiences' humdrum, frustrating existences. There are moments here that will break your heart, that feel as real as anything can when written in transcribed Sitcomese; every character has his or her speech in which all that's been concealed is revealed. (Even Leachman, a Brooks vet dating back to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, has her moment when she says, "You think your life's embarrassing and somebody finds encouragement in it," a sincere expression of enlightenment.) But Brooks can't bother with a tissue when he knows a sponge will do even better, so on and on he goes, until we're no longer moved but just a little tired.