I find it almost ironic that the finest performances I saw in 2004 came from two of the most unlikely sources: the men best known for their roles as Ace Ventura and Billy Madison. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey gave a radiantly subdued performance, finally perfecting the refined actor within that had seeped out in varying degrees in The Truman Show, The Majestic, and the Andy Kaufman biopic, Man on the Moon. Adam Sandler’s turn as John Klasky in James L. Brook’s Spanglish is an even a bigger revelation, however; not because Sandler has finally honed his acting skills, but because he manages such a touching performance by staying true to his inner Gilmore - the sweet, angryish oaf better known for his violent outbursts than for his ability to elicit emotion.
That Adam Sandler could be so affecting as an older, more mature version of himself is apt for a movie about self-identity; or, more precisely, about hanging on to one’s identity when life’s forces endeavor to chip it away. It’s also infinitely refreshing to learn that even with the best of directors, Sandler still can’t act in the traditional sense; while Tom Hanks came to fame with such insipidly winsome comedies as Bachelor Party and Turner & Hooch before going on to win his first Oscar and becoming a “serious” actor, Sandler’s regular-guy status isn’t in any imminent jeopardy. Despite his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and now Spanglish, Sandler probably won’t ever “evolve” into an Academy favorite, which is a blessing for those in his generation who still cherish the occasional boxing match with Bob Barker or the violently spewed non sequitur. In Spanglish, his rough acting skills — or lack thereof — work for the character, rendering him more honest; he’s an amiable good guy, and good guys in this vein are hardly ever polished; but the fact that Sandler doesn’t try to force a good performance because he is working with James L. Brooks is a testament to Sandler’s own comfort with and knowledge of himself.
In Spanglish, Sandler plays Klasky, a promising chef on the verge of world-class status; when Klasky finally achieves the coveted four-star rating from the New York Times Food Section, he faces the prospect of a restaurant about to lose its distinctiveness as the local bistro known for its willingness to take risks, which is basically a metaphor for the crossroads that the rest of the characters in Spanglish face, most notably, Flor Moreno (Paz Vega), who has moved herself and her daughter away from Mexico to find a better life in the United States. Flor, who is Klasky and his wife, Deborah’s (Tea Leoni) Spanish-speaking maid, must wrestle with her new surroundings and whether to allow her daughter, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), to succumb to the wealthy Anglo-culture of Malibu or insist that, despite Cristina’s protestations, she stay true to her own working-class Hispanic heritage.
The motivating force behind all of this character inertia is the controlling, insecure Deborah, played by Leoni, who flawlessly captures the neurotic superego of a woman on the verge of a breakdown, grasping not just to hang on to her diminishing identity, but to erase the personalities of everyone around her in favor of her own. Leoni’s character is a manic version of Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets, replacing all of his obsessive compulsiveness with frenzied psychoses, and she actually manages to be even more dislikable (that both characters are said to be loosely autobiographical doesn’t say much for Mr. Brooks).
The crisis between Deborah and John exists largely around their parenting styles; Deborah, who opts for a more contemporary approach, feels it is her duty as a parent to compel her daughter, Bernice (Sarah Steele), to lose weight, encouraging her to do so by buying her clothes two sizes too small, a decision that drives Bernice to tears. John’s attitude is more sympathetic , but Deborah insists that they “remain on the same page,” even when John’s nice-guy approach is at odds with her method. John is, of course, burdened by his wife’s psychological issues, mostly because the compromises he is forced to make are incompatible with his persona; this internal conflict drives him away from Deborah and into the arms of Flora, with whom his identity is more aligned, a premise rife with comic tension because Flora doesn’t speak a word of English.
James L. Brooks’ script is replete with the one-liners that seem to float above his brand of melodrama; in As Good As It Gets, Brooks imprinted “Go Sell Crazy Somewhere Else,” into our pop-culture consciousness and “You make me want to be a better man,” into every crumbling relationship in teenage America. Spanglish introduces a wealth of these phrases, some so clever (“Your low self-esteem is just common sense”) that we forget that we are actually watching what amounts to a superbly acted, brilliantly written television sitcom crammed into a feature-length film. The entire silly premise of having a Spanish-speaking single mother work within the home of what are in effect characters from “The O.C.” seems tailor made for “zany misunderstandings,” and enough heartwarming moral lessons to wrap up a season of episodes. In some respects, Spanglish succumbs to all the pitfalls of the genre — which perhaps should not be surprising, given a script written by the man behind “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — it is at times too earnest, offensively stereotypical and patronizing.
But Spanglish is skillfully executed, and the moral lesson here, as cliched as it might sound, still manages to resonate. In Brooks’ worldview, assimilation is eschewed in favor of self-realization, and to compromise one’s identity is indefensible. In a larger sense, Spanglish is about the culture-clash between Los Angeles and Mexico; but more specifically, it’s about rejecting refinement; it’s about refusing to “improve yourself” or evolve in a social sense if it means losing the sense of yourself that is tied up in your heritage. It is a trite message, sure; but in the hands of James L. Brooks, it’s never felt more revitalizing.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
Spanglish / Dustin Rowles
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()