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Spanglish

Movies | This imperfect but funny and touching film deserves more credit than it's likely to get

Issue: "Lavelle's wonderful life," Dec. 25, 2004

One of the most remarkable things about Spanglish is that Adam Sandler proves he's human-or, at least, that he can convincingly play one. But this observational comedy from director James L. Brooks has more to recommend it than just Mr. Sandler's surprisingly civilized performance.

Spanglish is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and brief language. One strong profanity and a non-nude sex scene between a husband and wife put it on the strong side of the rating, but the film overall is characterized by an admirable self-restraint.

The story is framed around a Princeton University admission essay written by a young Mexican immigrant named Cristina. In the essay, translated to voiceover narration (a narrative weak spot), Cristina explains her admiration for her housekeeper mother and the story segues back to the girl's childhood in Los Angeles.

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Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) and her non-English-speaking mother Flor (Paz Vega) live in an insulated Hispanic barrio until financial worries prompt Flor to look for work in the Anglo community. Flor ends up in the eccentric Clasky household, made up of Deborah (Téa Leoni), husband John (Mr. Sandler), daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele), son Georgie (Ian Hyland), and Deborah's mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman).

Deb is a neurotic basket case, self-obsessed and feeling especially sensitive after losing her job as an interior designer. John is a top L.A. chef with his own restaurant, an even-tempered man (yes, this is Adam Sandler) who loves his family but struggles to take charge in his own home.

The gentle, leisurely paced story traces the way the lives of Flor and her daughter become messily intertwined with the Claskys. Flor struggles between competing emotions, desiring the best for her daughter in their new country but concerned that she not assimilate too much, especially after witnessing the dysfunctional Claskys.

The theme of assimilation has taken on uncomfortable liberal/conservative implications, the idea of cultural heritage in many ways having been co-opted by the left. But it's an idea that ought to resonate with Christians who, like Flor, want to see their children defined more by family than societal ideals.

An understanding develops between the sensitive John and Flor that edges dangerously close to an affair, particularly when Deb betrays John's trust. Although Flor and John share a kiss, the fact that they do not see a difficult situation as justifying adultery is one of the movie's many strengths.

Tenderness and compassion, and an admiration for basic virtues, are rare in film. Spanglish has all three-and this imperfect but funny and touching film deserves more credit than it's likely to get.

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