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'Spanglish': See? Si

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page WE39

JAMES L. BROOKS is a comic jazzman. He wails on sax, throbs on bass and scats like Ella with pitch-perfect mastery. He's never on screen. But you can feel the writer-director's touch behind every note. That's the assured vibe of "Spanglish," his latest work about the burst of fresh air a Mexican housekeeper brings to an affluent Los Angeles home. Above all, the movie's funny and wicked fun.

Flor (Paz Vega), a smoldering beauty from Mexico, enters the pool area of the wealthy Clasky family. She has come to be interviewed for the job of housekeeper.


Tea Leoni and Adam Sandler in"Spanglish," another bright feather in the cap for that maestro of comedy-drama, James L. Brooks. (Bob Marshak -- Columbia Pictures)

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"You're gorgeous," says her would-be employer, Deborah Clasky (Tea Leoni).

"She didn't mean it as a compliment," says Deborah's mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), leaning forward to Flor. "It's more of an accusation."

An illegal immigrant with a bright teenage daughter, Cristina (who narrates the movie), Flor gets the job and more: entree to a gilded Los Angeles home, where the gate has a punch code, the two children go to private school and no one speaks Spanish. Flor speaks no English, which means the Claskys -- including Deborah's husband, John (Adam Sandler) -- are reduced to sign language and clumsy gestures. Fasten your seat belts, gringos, it's going to be a bumpy cultural ride.

Flor soon gets the lay of the land. Deborah, who makes no attempt to roll the final "r" of Flor's name, is archly self-absorbed. But she thinks she's the best-intentioned person in the house. Deborah's teenage daughter, Bernice (Sarah Steele) has a weight problem but is a sweet soul. There's a younger son, Georgie (Ian Hyland), but we'll hardly hear from him for most of the movie.

Flor's appalled at Deborah, whose idea of encouraging Bernice to lose weight is to buy her daughter a bag of clothes that are about one size too small. But she's gradually drawn to John, a milquetoast angel who is the children's real emotional guardian. He's an inspired chef by day, a doting father by night. Although John's bumbling, stammering utterances are hard enough to understand for English speakers (this is Adam Sandler, remember), Flor appreciates his gentleness and sense of empathy.

Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) comes fully into the story when the Claskys take a Malibu house for the summer, which isn't convenient to Flor's bus route. The housekeeper reluctantly agrees to move in with the family, along with Cristina. At which point, everyone gets to blow their horn, bang their drums and make volatile music, even soft-spoken John.

At one point, Flor (using Cristina as a translator) berates John for slipping her daughter $640 for finding him a bag full of sea glass. So John counter-accuses her of crossing the line with his own daughter; she fixed the buttons on Bernice's undersized coat so it would "fit." When Flor agrees with him, John -- married to the imperial Deborah -- is floored.

"It's pretty wild to say something to somebody and have that person concede the point," he says.

I'll let you have the pleasure, yourself, of hearing the choice lines Evelyn gets to lay on her daughter.

It should be said, Brooks fixes the fight in John's favor. Deborah is an all-American harpy, a modern, obsessive neurotic. She's fun to hate, but you feel as if you're cheating to do so. Perhaps aware of this, Brooks and Leoni soften up Deborah's potential caricature as much as possible; she comes through with human warmth in the later stages. But it's pretty clear who's wearing the designer black hat.

The story isn't Deborah's, however. This is about Cristina's perception of her mother and how she came to this house and underwent significant changes. And that's the charm and the sheer blast of it. Beyond all that gorgeousness, the Spanish-born Vega is assured and alert, a fine comedian. And Sandler proves his touching performance in "Punch-Drunk Love" was no fluke. And what a joy it is to see Leachman given room to maneuver. As Evelyn, she's a pistol, carrying that over-filled glass of wine in one hand, but never spilling or missing a comic beat.

Perhaps "Spanglish" doesn't reach the high notes of "Broadcast News," which interwove comedy and romance as perfectly as any film since the days of Hepburn and Tracy. But Brooks's flair is on full display. The film historian David Thomson once said of Billy Wilder, he's "our last link with the merry, wicked talk of the golden age." Well, maybe he wasn't the last.

SPANGLISH (PG-13, 128 minutes) -- Contains some obscenity and one half-clothed sexual scene. Area theaters.


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