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'Spanglish': A Director's Language Of Bitterness

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page C01

You know him. Maybe he's in your office or your neighborhood or on the bus. He's the angry man. Something was taken from him, and it's so unfair. The grievance, like a ton of cement, has crushed him. It's all he can talk about, and he leans in close, inappropriately intense, and he's so convinced he's at last making it all clear for you, and you're thinking: Get this guy into a nuthouse.

That's the James L. Brooks who wrote and directed the screed called "Spanglish," with an unfortunate cast of victims including the luminous Paz Vega, the baffled Adam Sandler, the wondrous Cloris Leachman and the betrayed Tea Leoni.

Adam Sandler and Cloris Leachman are wasted as the wronged husband and his mother-in-law. (Sony Pictures)

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So rancid is Brooks's fury that it's clouded his judgment, so that each of his main characters is a stereotype of the most broad-brush, malodorous nature. Two of them are at least benign, if deeply unbelievable: Vega, a Spanish actress of great beauty and dignity, is the Noble Housekeeper, Flor Moreno. Noble servants are a Western tradition, of course, dating back at least as far as "Gone With the Wind," in which Butterfly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel patented the role. Whoopi Goldberg further developed it in "Corrina, Corrina," but at least 75,000 actresses have been burdened by its saccharine virtue.

Sandler, normally a vigorous screen presence no matter the crudeness of the vehicle, is the Wronged Husband. He too is noble, he too is understanding, compassionate, a superb father, a well-remunerated professional (he's a chef in his own four-star restaurant), a committed, caring individual who longs to share his love with his family, his community -- and his beautiful housekeeper, though of course he's too darn good for anything so base.

Both of them, however, are betrayed by Her.

Or should that be, after H. Rider Haggard, "She."

She the devil, she the monster, she the selfish, she the vain.

Poor Leoni, caught hopelessly in Brooks's spider web: the brunt of his wrath, the focus of his hatred, the creature from the dark lagoon of his nightmares.

This is both an astonishment and a disappointment. Brooks, after all, invented Mary Richards, that icon of American spunk. In movies he's known for his ability, rare for a male artist, to evoke sympathetic female characters: He directed Holly Hunter in "Broadcast News" and Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger in "Terms of Endearment."

But that complexity of character, that compassion for flawed humanity, completely deserts him here; he's out for blood. Leoni plays Deborah Clasky, chef John's wife and mother of his daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele). Boy, does her creator hate her. Whomever she's based upon -- rumor suggests an ex-wife -- I pity. Honey, call your lawyer. Are there libel laws in California? The portrait of the marriage is so lopsided, it disturbs. Nobody's that bad, nobody's that good.

Brooks goes after the poor spouse hammer and tongs: She's a terrible mother who's continually mashing the tender ego of her daughter (Bernice is too fat for her taste), she's a bad cook, a slovenly housekeeper, a deluded narcissist who cares far more about her body -- jogging, endless yoga, pedicures, manicures -- than her family. She's not supportive when John wins that fourth star.

Deborah is also a bad daughter -- she's driven her mother (Leachman) to drink. When Deborah encounters a child she likes better than her own -- that would be Cristina, Flor's daughter -- she seizes that child, essentially attempting to usurp her mother by bribery, buying the poor thing new clothes, getting her a scholarship at a fancy school.

Oh, did I mention: She cheats on her husband.

You know, this can be kind of fun. I mean, "Medea" wouldn't be a laff-riot without a real bad gal in the title role, and where would film noir be without its femmes fatales?

But the moment where "Spanglish" sails into uncharted waters is when Brooks takes us into the bedroom -- don't go there, I'm thinking, please -- and shows us the sensitive male view of bad sex. Again, it's all her fault. She takes her pleasure from him in a second -- despite his pleading -- then is off at once for a shower and a shopping trip.

The movie's shame is the performances it squanders. Leachman, an old Brooks hand from the "Mary Tyler Moore" days, plays Deborah's wise if usually drunken mother with a great deal of warmth and wisdom. She's a great actress, and the movie perks up every time she's on-screen. Vega is another great actress, and the movie seems set up to explore her character -- it's cast in the form of Cristina's memoir as a part of a college entrance essay -- until it loses its way in its fury over Deborah. I kept wondering what she could do in a real role.

The kids -- Steele and Shelbie Bruce as Flor's daughter -- are superb. But these people seem to be in a different movie from the ugly sitcom adventures of bad Deborah and perfect John.

Spanglish (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo and profanity.

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