Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Speak Spanglish or Die.

2005, USA
James L. Brooks

For a man whose claim to fame is a remarkable talent for sounding like a pre-schooler, Adam Sandler seems to be making a rather brazen grasp for mainstream stardom. Unfortunately, his quest to be taken seriously is not advancing well, as his first attempt was the aggressively anti-social Punch Drunk Love, a film so deliberately un-commercial it sent even film students scurrying for the safety of Jerry Bruckheimer-produced television. His second attempt is Spanglish, the latest film from writer-director James L. Brooks, which is still comedic, but aims for a more adult crowd. The thing about the adult crowd, however, is that their sense of humor is the reason why Everybody Loves Raymond is a hit. Yes, the modern adult is a herd animal, and nothing pleases the herd more than nice, simple comedy about white families featuring a bumbling yet kind-hearted father who just wants to watch the NCAA finals, and the long-suffering, exasperated yet loving mom who just wants dad to pick up his gym socks and put them in the laundry hamper. And don’t forget the eccentric yet endearing brother/father/neighbor! We wouldn’t want the audience to soil their Depends by messing with that part of the equation. Hell, take out the sassy and precocious kids and the whole CBS audience might die of heart failure before sweeps week, and then who would Andy Rooney have to grumble his homespun commonsense wisdom to before he dies a miserable curmudgeonly death alone and dusty? James L. Brooks specializes in this sort of safe, suburban comedy, and though he does manage to infuse his films with a spark of life, said spark is easy to mistake for mild schizophrenia. His pictures, which include Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, are slices of realistic modern life, but are filled with dialogue that’s too quirky and animated for reality, and characters entirely too lively and twitchy for the settings of his films, coming off sort of like Leave It To Beaver on a cocaine high. While the viewer does get used to this approach, it takes a while to acclimate, and the abrupt transition to a world where Tea Leoni yaps like a puppy version of Cujo can be jarring. Spanglish tells what’s meant to be the heartwarming tale of a family on the verge of implosion that’s sent spinning off to either salvation or destruction by the arrival of a charming Mexican maid and her young daughter. The tone is light, but many of the jokes have a tinge of hysteria to them, as do the performances, specifically the aforementioned Tea Leoni, who has apparently been going to a late 70s Dennis Hopper for acting advice. Sandler tries to hold the whole thing together, but he’s nowhere near the actor he needs to be to keep the film from disintegrating. Another annoying performance comes from Paz Vega, who plays the Spanish maid, and is not Penelope Cruz. This is important to note, because if you’ve either forgotten your glasses or had a couple of beers with your pre-movie dinner, you will not be able to tell the difference. The children of the two families are played by two very capable young actresses, the charming Shelbie Bruce and the vaguely porcine Sarah Steele. Unfortunately, as neither of them are blond, blue eyed, or have charmingly misarranged baby teeth, and therefore are not destined for sickening media over-saturation of a Dakota Fanning or a young Drew Barrymore, meaning they will have to put off their drug addiction and annulled marriages to Hollywood club owners until their mid-twenties, at least. Complaints aside, the film actually presents some interesting moral quandaries for the characters to navigate through, and the final resolutions are often not as predictable nor as simple as one might think. Unfortunately, it’s all presented with a light hearted-veneer and sense of forced humor that smacks of an Saved By The Bell episode about the child sex trade. Still, I’d rather see Adam Sandler try to grow up and fail than to see him gradually grow older and craggier while still trying to figure out how many times he can fit the word ‘poop’ into an MTV Movie Award acceptance speech.


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