RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 2: James L Brooks’ “Spanglish” (2004)


The Players…

Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, Paz Bega and Cloris Leachman, with Sarah Steele, Shelbie Bruce, Ian Hyland and Thomas Hayden Church.

The Story…

John and Deb Clasky need a housekeeper. Flor needs a job to keep her and her daughter Cristina financially independent. Matriarch Evelyn needs to dry out. The Clasky kids need some focus. The dog does not need a ball. Flor’s daughter needs American opportunities. And all of them need to start communicating in a productive manner otherwise John’s business is going to crack, Deb will crack further, Evelyn will crack open another bottle and the kids will turn to crack. And the dog is gonna trash the house. Really. After all these mixed signals, who needs more trash?

The Rant…

My father once inadvertently gave me some sage advice.

In my misspent life so far, I often recall his little nugget with a sigh and a shake of the head. He and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but his words of wisdom at certain times bounce around my brainpan with sharp clarity.

Dad said that most of the world’s problems stem from a lack of communication. That, and high fructose corn syrup. But if you look around at the world—or at least what the cable news networks beat you over the head with 24 hours a day—my Dad may have been right. People get all bent out shape over issues like money, religion, politics, family and whose turn it is to take out the garbage. No one seems to listen to each other, and some people just won’t shut the hell up. Your voice at any given time is the most important sound in the galaxy, regardless of the topic and often the audience.

Nowadays, communication doesn’t even to need an audience. Not an immediate one anyway. With all the FaceBook posts and Tweets rattling around the Web at millions of bytes per second, does anyone really care who’s listening anymore? Most folks sure as sh*t don’t really care. I mean, some FB posts are way too personal for my sanity. People forget it’s an open forum, and do I really want to see the MRIs of that lime-sized tumor in your inner left thigh? No. No I don’t. Unlike.

It’s like everyone in the First World is talking about everything and saying nothing. No one listens, no one hears, and yet we still keep trying to get some point across. About what we have no idea. I blame the cradle, where we grew up. The first words you hear are usually mom’s, maybe the doctor’s cry “It’s a boy/girl (minus the slash, of course)!” Our first introduction to the world is people talking at you. Not with you; you ain’t there yet. Here’s where the troubles begin.

Me? I think problems with lousy communication start with the family.

We’ve all come a family, right? That’s where the hassle begins. I was born into a family. Maybe some of you were too? It’s supposed to be about open exchange of ideas and manners and community, socializing and creating opinions. Supposed to be. But reality intrudes, the diapers come off (hopefully by the time you’re 12) and let’s face it, every member of a family takes a side, sometimes knocking the whole civilized facade over. More often than not, every side takes a side that is a side of one.

Here’s an example: when you’re a kid, your Mom and Dad are the alpha and omega. They were infallible, and as sure as eggs is eggs, mom and dad would never steer you wrong. Then puberty hits, and the almighty parents seem more like tyrants; what do these, these f*cking “adults” know about growing up? They’ve already been there, so what do they know about what’s what now is anyway? And what’s up with that crappy music? Who’s Paul McCartney?

Later, around your mid-20’s (if you’re lucky), you come to realize that your parents are basically cool people, did the best they could, and you were the butthead all those years. But you didn’t listen. Check that: you didn’t want to listen, to mom, dad or their Beatles’ albums, which probably you now own and/or stole from their record collection. Now you can’t come out and say those six words: you were right, I wasn’t listening.

It takes a lot of humility to admit we’re wrong. It’s takes a lot of fortitude to truly speak our minds. And it takes either a careful reticence of words or copious amounts of beer to convey some actual meaning to an audience that counts.

I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “What the f*ck is he talking about?”

See? You weren’t listening. You were probably scanning YouTube for the latest video of cute cats doing macramé to the dulcet tunes of Katy Perry’s “Roar.” Drop the mouse and listen up. That’s right. Listen. Pay attention. Pocket the iPhone and please shut the f*ck up.

Remember Dad, in his finite wisdom, and let’s try to communicate in a productive manner. Let’s not be like the Clasky household…

John Clasky (Sandler) and his wife Deb (Leoni) are in dire need of a domestic. Deb has just gotten out of the investment business (read: fired) and is ill-equipped to manage a household. John as a reluctant four-star chef can’t balance his time equally between business and family. And there are the kids to consider, not to mention Deb’s freewheeling, boozy mom Evelyn (Leachman). Plus, there’s a crazy dog that needs a lot of walking and not fetching. The Clasky clan has gotta find a center to their bustling, verging on dysfunctional family dynamic.

Flor (r-r-r-r…Bega) has recently emigrated (and read: jumped the border) from Mexico and landed both she and her daughter Cristina (Bruce) into the barrio of LA, looking for the “American Dream” (read, once again: a good job). Flor’s cuz knows of this well-to-do family in need of a housekeeper that could probably pay a fair wage to keep Flor and Cristina financially solvent but still maintain their Hispanic roots.

Despite her age, Cristina knows that to make it north of the border you gotta learn English. Flor views such formality an affront to her proud Mexican heritage, and refuses to learn a lick. But there’s this job to consider, as well as Cristina’s well being. And the Claskys seem like nice people—albeit off the wall— so one must be ser flexible.

But how much to bend? John seems like a decent man. Deb looks like she needs massive therapy. Evelyn needs 28 days. And the Clasky kids Bernie (Steele) and George (Hyland) need fully functioning parents. Flor knows all the troubles of being a single mom without a family to back her. Now she ends up having to back this family? Well, with Cristina as her envoy, maybe Flor can find a middle ground to both stand firm and still earn a steady paycheck to keep the wolves at bay. Then again, who knew such a pack lived in suburban LA?

It’s all gonna be a dream deferred…

Sorry to tag that with a clipped quote from Hughes. Still, the guy knew poetry and the troubles of being a needful outsider, so again, shut the f*ck up. I already claimed you didn’t listen, and when I said Hughes I wasn’t referring to John. Get it?

Good (sigh).

Oy, this was tough, and not just the movie either. Recently, I had to retreat to my bedroom, wire up an old, first-gen flat screen TV with a beater DVD player just to get some privacy from family suffering from either insomnia or the midnight munchies. They always want to join me (read yet again: interrupt) and watch these so-called mediocre movies in my hopeful, misbegotten privacy. I now know I need a man cave. One with a portcullis.

I never knew how tough it was to be a mediocre critic of mediocre movies and try to ignore an audience. After all, it was the faceless, nameless, potential audiences I claimed to let them in on the know, before God. Well, on the topic of miscommunication, I guess I bend to that sway sometimes too.

Now then.

Ahem, this was tough. Backed by the Lady in the Water precept, didn’t you just want a movie to go right when others said wrong, wrong, wrong? Me too. The idea of a family comedy, one with an extended family and even in a sense adopted foreign family should be rife with opportunities about culture shock and clash, crazy humorous bickering, that crumbly pretense of normalcy of a family desperately trying to patch it up with chewing gum and duct tape. Hopefully all of it would be wrapped up in a smart outer layer coating a gooey, sentimental center, with chuckles all around.

Sometimes you cannot wave from popular opinion.

I heard gripes about Spanglish for a long time, but it was mostly superficial stuff. Things like Sandler not playing his usual, trademark buffoon schtick for laughs. My thoughts? His routine can get very grating and overdone. I am as surprised as you are. Y’know, like for (*does some quick math on fingers and toes*) his kersmillion comedies out there, pressed onto DVD, VHS, streamed, Edison coils, either all released, unrealized or still just a mote of dust in the mind of some kookoo producer. Sandler’s loud, goofball thing has served him well, and he’s probably been laughin’ to the bank the whole time. Still, here? Mostly mellow Sandler is a welcome thing now and again, if only to show he can be mellow It’s almost ironic that Sandler portrays a chef; chefs are decidedly not cool-headed people and prone to volcanic freak-outs. Besides, it’s not like he hung up the clown shoes after Spanglish.

There was also issue taken with how truly unlikeable Leoni’s character was. Deb is a neurotic nightmare. Even the characters we are not supposed to root for have at least one redeemable quality that would either be: a) later revealed as the plot devices carefully scrape away the bile and bitterness to expose the tender, misunderstood heart within, or; b) something the audience could relate with (a little warmth, a little pity, etc). Not Deb; she is an overanxious ball of nerves whose thoughts come across as so disjointed you find yourself wondering, “Is she really that f*cking insane? And how does Sandler put up with it?” Audiences didn’t put up with it much either.

And there were those adorable moppets, the kids, who despite this being an ensemble family drama ended up mostly as wallpaper. Cardboard cut-outs that didn’t really push the story along very well. Even one of the little buggers was, in essence, the center of the story, and even she was relegated to the sidelines most of the time.

So there were a lot of complaints. My sources came from the IMDb, good ol’ reliable Rotten Tomatoes and, of course, Box Office Mojo—along with what people told me with eyes rolled Heavenwards—to hang over this movie. Again, it was not unlike the flak dished out for Lady in the Water by yours truly. A character study of a non-nuclear family mixed with culture clash and language barriers isn’t a new thing. Hell, Dances with Wolves earned Best Pic for it, so folks know about this often used device. But the message of the movie, what I wanted to get out of Spanglish was…um…er…

I wanted to get a message. Any message. Moral, social, text. Something.

Director Brooks is known for telling stories about communication—or the lack thereof—and how it not only reflects individual social interactions (e.g. Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets, Broadcast News, etc.), but also American society as a whole. He’s been producing The Simpsons since its inception, so the guy knows a thing or three about kooky family dysfunction. The whole cast of Spanglish is endlessly flapping their lips and not saying anything. The whole movie’s raison d’être is absent. To quote Gert Stein, “There’s no there, there.”

But let’s break it down, by the numbers.

Spanglish’s story is pretty simple. The whole culture clash thing. Rich paired against not so much. Token outsider—conveniently played by a foreigner—gets swept up in the family dynamic and injects some much needed perspective on the whole mess. There’s that language barrier thing, too. Simple. Been done before. Will be done again.

Here’s a surprise: it’s been done better than Spanglish has here. Dances with Wolves was all about that. Other good examples include Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise and even that very-80’s sci-fi Robinson Crusoe caper Enemy Mine tangled with perils of communication breakdowns and their eventually being overcome. Those movies were about learning to communicate, and doing so a metaphor for peace, understanding and teamwork. Not the case here. We’re bludgeoned with the whole “too much talking and saying nothing” contrivance over and over and over again throughout the movie, and it gets very trying after a while.

And it doesn’t even lead to anything. Apart from all the verbiage—English and Spanish alike—other forms of communication are employed for naught regarding advancing the already tenuous story allegedly about Cristina and Flor. There’s a lot of emoting via facial mugging and deliberate speech here (Leoni seems to be channeling a low-level Sybil), but not necessarily by body language, which is if you think about it, for the better part of the film, Flor’s only way to get what’s going on is to read the Clasky’s faces and movements. It’s kind of like anti-mime (which sounds like a pretty good thing if you ask me). But all of it goes nowhere.

This is particularly damning when there are many flourishes or suggestions of how Spanglish could’ve made for some halfway decent entertainment. The subplot of Deb finding worth as a mom in Cristina’s eyes against Bernie’s deference to dad would’ve made for some juicy tension if it didn’t come across as so flat and hinging so one-sided to Deb’s crazy. The whole “performance anxiety” trail John follows fizzles out after awhile, rather than cloud his sense of responsibility versus ego. Lastly, a glaring omission for under using some acting is Leachman. She’s a delight here, and there’s a lot to her backstory, especially in how she relates to her grandkids. But instead she’s more or less releagated to scenes not unlike awkward comedy sketches. She has sweetness tempered with bile, and this is never fully realized not explored. Spanglish has a lot of these half-baked ideas paired with wasted opportunity, and the whole story about Cristina making her way into the world gets all tangled up and seemingly discarded in the overwhelming hijinks of the Clasky clan.

My ranting above how social media is more or less making us less social (i.e. no one pays attention to each other anymore). The art of conversation, with all its words and sounds and need to use your ears and no snappy emoticons at the push of a button and having to feign interest (not dissimilar to what you’re doing here) has all but vanished. It’s all making us unable to talk without using sound bites and enough room to give someone barely the time of day, what with your nose glued to your Android and all. We don’t notice or know our own miscommunication anymore. That might have been the message behind Spanglish, what with all its dysfunction and Three’s Company­-like mixed signals. No one listens, no one understands, no one is willing to accept any incoming feeds about others’ needs or wants. We’re all too tied up in our own bullsh*t. Maybe that was what Brooks was trying to get across, but I don’t know. Seemed the culture clash thing was supposed to be the whole crux, but the story got hijacked by the antics and antagonism of upper-class, white liberal guilt. And maybe too much corn syrup.

No shocker here, but I had a hard time watching Spanglish. It wasn’t the plot was too obtuse or the acting that dreadful. There was just this lack of momentum here, which in turn failed to engage me. It felt like this: have you ever been reading a book only to come to the conclusion about halfway through you don’t like it? But then you grit your teeth and squint and sally forth anyway out of some sense of spite? You’re not going to bested by some book, by God! Well, I was determined to not be bested by Spanglish. I tried watching the movie three times. Now I’ve been known to occasionally re-watch my victims here at RIORI. You know, in case I missed something or was too pished to remember it (hey, it happens. If you forced yourself to watch of these clunkers, you’d need a drink, too). Re-watching and re-re-watching Spanglish was both an exercise in futility and teeth-grinding. And I eventually lost the fight.

For a guy who places a serious emphasis on the importance of communicating, Brooks failed to send us any real message with Spanglish.

Hey, you still listening?



The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. I all but gave up by the second act, that and the disc kept skipping out on me. I need full streaming on this new/old unit. Talk about a breakdown in communication. Oh yeah, and the movie wasn’t that good. Thanks a lot, Dad.

Stray Observations…

  • “Double gulp!”
  • Second best fake orgasm ever.
  • “I don’t exist!” “Ah, sure ya do.”
  • Finally, Sandler’s screaming come in handy.
  • “I slept.”
  • Story has it Sandler met with and learned a few things from esteemed chef Thomas Keller to get into character. He wasn’t listening too well.
  • “Well, I’m broke.”
  • I notice the less I like a movie, the fewer notes I take.

Next Installment…

Breaking news! The President has been abducted by terrorisrs! Is the country under siege? Is the White House Down? Further updates and snarky movie reviews may provide some answers. Back to you…


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