It’s ok to enjoy schmaltz every now and then. Even critics can’t live on Three Colours alone. Although art-house cinema has its rewards, something about pure, flagrantly manipulative schmaltz is necessary to maintain good movie-mental health. I know there are those who would insist Disney’s Enchanted is an insult to the art-form that gave us Au Hasard Balthazar, but let’s face it, with a choice between manipulative joy and a dead donkey lying in a field – are you really such a stick-in-the-mud? Enchanted might not be art, but it has a sense of fun that few art-house movies’ possess. It’s also impossible not to sing-along to, which is not something you say of, say, Mouchette.
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.
Steven Spielberg couldn’t make E.T. today. Not that he’s lost his sense of wonder. He could handle the effects just fine and the pacing would be tight, and maybe he’d even cast the same way (using only non-stars, non-look-at-me actors), but you wouldn’t remember anything apart from the alien.