You either forgive James L. Brooks his failings or you don’t. There’s no in-between. Accusations of schmaltz and Hollywood-endings are valid, shameless audience manipulation – fair. His characters do tend to go on journeys, have “arcs”, meet cute. There is never much to frighten the horses in his movies. If an f-word sneaks in, it isn’t the focus of anything (not a Mamet f-word). Bad language is like anger in Brooks’ movies, a little dark cloud before a month of sun. There would be no reason to review a movie like Spanglish, but for the fact that, besides the schmaltz, Brooks writes character like a Billy Wilder who believed in human beings.
Spanglish isn’t a great movie – it’s too soft to cut deep. The story of a Mexican maid and her Anglo-American employers learning to love (or step back from loving) each other is not the stuff of which great drama is made. There is an air of safety-proofing to the narrative that keeps it from ever confounding audience expectations or doing what great movies do: awake us. Brooks settles, as ever, for the middle ground, the vaguely TV movie-ish sort of movie, but (and it’s a big but…) look at what he does within his self-imposed constraints. Ask yourself if you’ve ever seen these scenes the way Brooks makes them. Yes, you’ve seen these types before (the wise servant, the neurotic bourgeoisie), but were they whole as the characters in Spanglish? Did they each speak with their own voice? Did scenes in the thousand and one other similar-type movies surprise you – play out inevitably only in hindsight?
Let’s tackle the main thing people are going to complain about in Spanglish: Tea Leoni. She plays the wife of Adam Sandler, a housewife who used to be in business and who speaks like she’s in a permanent team briefing. Yes, she still has the deep voice with too much pep in it to be sultry. No, no-one’s ever going to believe her when she smiles. Brooks hands her a role that’s one part harridan and two parts flibbertigibbet, and she runs with it. Her great gift to the movie is to trust that her director’s forgiveness of his character will translate. What Leoni does right here tells us a lot about what’s right with this movie: she might grate at times (hell – she might grate all the time), but she never does something you’ve seen before. She is an original object of irritation. Whatever her faults, they are new faults. It might not be the most desirable of plaudits, but it’s hard-won and it sticks.
Spanglish is full of these contradictions; you’re just about ready to give-up on the movie (that TV-movie-ish curse takes a strangle-hold) and then suddenly, as Cloris Leachman says to her on-screen grand-daughter: “You think your life is embarrassing, and then…somebody finds encouragement in it.” It’s as if Spanglish needs to be almost toe-curling at times in order that its truths can find a voice. Because Brooks isn’t the sort of director who needs art-house validation in order to talk about the human condition. He’s the anti-Robert Altman, the insider’s insider – he’s never going to tell a story in that fractured cinéma vérité-style that would make it easy to say “this is a great film.” The toe-curling stuff is Brooks because that’s his heart, he’s a son of Hollywood, but Spanglish succeeds (as Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets succeeded) because it’s still possible to talk about real people even if you speak in the language of TV.
Look at the scene where Cloris lectures Tea as she’s on her way to commit adultery, how spry Cloris is, that flare in her eyes… She isn’t Miss Daisy doling out homespun wisdom. She’s too light on her feet for that. She is the essence of Brooks’ way of making movies: zestful, heartfelt, making old tropes new.