Monday, June 06, 2005

Hey, it's Cajun-Man!

Every time I've watched an Adam Sandler movie, I've come away (a) hating the movie, and (b) thinking that even while I'm hating the movie and Adam Sandler's bizarrely mugging performances, that this guy was eventually going to make a movie that I liked once he quit doing all the stuff that annoyed me. And when I saw that Sandler was going to lead in a new film by James L. Brooks, one of my favorite screenwriters (Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets), I figured, this is gonna be the one. I'm finally gonna like Adam Sandler.

And I did like Adam Sandler as I watched Spanglish this weekend. I just didn't like Spanglish. Go figure.

(Spoilers for Spanglish below.)

I knew, as I was watching the film, that I wasn't liking it, but I couldn't conclusively put my finger on why. For a while I thought that maybe Brooks had stuffed his film with too many storylines, and that none of them were really getting the room they needed to take flight, and I do still think that. I mean, here's a movie that gives us a talented chef who's terrified of getting a four-star review, and who has a wife at home who is so neurotic as to be practically begging for large doses of valium and a daughter in high school with academic issues to go along with self-esteem problems. You could easily get a movie out of that.

But Brooks isn't done; the film also gives us a Mexican immigrant woman named Flor (whose immigrant status might not be totally legal) and her own daughter, who has to translate for Flor since Flor speaks no English at all. Flor, looking for work, ends up being hired as the cleaning lady for Sandler's family, despite the fact that she can speak no English in her interview. So we've got these two, and all of their interactions with the family.

The conflicts that arise are pretty straightforward: Flor is alarmed when the Tea Leoni character steamrolls over her in accepting her daughter and making her virtually part of the family; Sandler seems to get steamrolled by everybody (he spends much of the movie being in the room while someone else has a massive tantrum, and then after their departure, saying to no one in particular, "What just happened?"); and so on. Oh, and there's a live-in Mother-in-law who just seems to be there for the ride, I guess. I'm not really sure what her purpose is, except to pop up to offer wisdom at crucial moments after being a comic-relief drunken lush during most of the film's other moments.

And of course, Sandler falls in love with Flor, and she with him. There's a wonderful exchange where Sandler says something to Flor along the lines of, "It must have been hard, raising your daughter and being a widow," to which Flor responds, "What makes you think I am a widow?" Sandler's answer: "That's the only way I can think of why a man would leave you." So, of course, disaster awaits.

(Flor, by the way, is played by an actress named Paz Vega, of whom I have never heard before. And she is utterly stunning, almost distractingly stunning: during some of the film's most important scenes, I caught myself just staring at her and going, "Duhhh...." I refer to Flor by name, and no other character's, in this post for one reason: she's the only character whose name I remember, because the film makes a joke of Tea Leoni's inability to roll her R's early on.)

Now, it's to Brooks's credit that when the inevitable disaster strikes, it's not quite what we expect it to be. But in another way, this is troublesome. I was so busy awaiting the inevitable big moment when Sandler and Flor will be tempted that I was caught totally unawares when Tea Leoni revealed that she had already been unfaithful. This event, of course, provides helpful causation for the big scene between Sandler and Flor, but the two characters decide against doing anything with each other. Now Sandler returns to Leoni, who has received the afore-mentioned wisdom from her mother, who says in one of the film's numerous memorable lines (a Brooks script always has lots of good lines), "It's not the worst thing in the world to realize that you love your husband." But when Sandler returns, he simply tells her that he can't sleep with her for now...and unless my memory's faulty, that's the last real exchange between Sandler and Leoni in the film. The entire dynamic of their relationship is left not just unresolved, but completely hanging there.

The same kind of thing happens with Sandler's daughter, whose self-esteem issues are given a boost by Flor and then pretty much not mentioned again; and with Sandler's fears for the future of his restaurant, which are likewise not much mentioned again after a certain point. (In fact, I personally found it incredibly hard to believe that "the best chef in the United States" would be home that much. The world of high restaurant cuisine is one of hyper-competition and staggeringly long hours, and yet, when we see Sandler actually cooking while the restaurant is open for business, his kitchen is the model of order and clarity. Likewise, I kept wondering when we'd actually see Flor doing all the housework for this family and her uber-neurotic mistress. Anyone who has seen Dolores Claiborne has some idea of what I would have expected from a cleaning lady in posh suburban LA, which is not what Spanglish depicts.)

All of that had me roughly thinking that Spanglish was an OK film, if a bit overstuffed and not entirely thought out, until one of the very last scenes, when Flor suddenly decides to cut off her nose, and her daughter's nose, to spite her face. By Tea Leoni's connections, earlier on Flor's daughter gets to go to a private school, where she blossoms like she never has before. But at the end, when Flor realizes she can't be with Sandler (nor he with her), she quits her job and yanks her daughter -- heretofore the center of her world, apparently -- from the private school. Her daughter's reaction is utterly heartbreaking; seriously, this was the most shattering moment in the whole damned movie, and yet the daughter seems to have already forgiven Flor within minutes of being told that her greatest opportunity yet in life has been taken from her because her mother can't be with Adam Sandler. So not only did I find the forgiving unconvincing, the whole scene in my mind completely destroyed Flor as a character. Suddenly I was seeing her as being as self-centered, in her own way, as Tea Leoni's whack-job of a wife. Yeah, the film establishes that Flor's daughter turns out OK (the film's framing device is the daughter's narration, which in turn is an admissions letter she has written to Princeton University), but still, I saw that as a hell of a betrayal, and it got brushed under the rug way too easily.

Maybe if Spanglish had left out Flor and her daughter entirely and just focused on Sandler's family; or maybe if the film had left out Sandler's family entirely and just really driven the focus in on Flor and her daughter, it might have worked. As it is, Spanglish doesn't work for me.

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