There are films for every moment in your life. On a Sunday afternoon after brunch and a stroll you don’t want to watch a Lars Von Trier film. Why is it that you can almost always find Terms of Endearment (1983) or As Good As It Gets (1997) on television on Sunday afternoons more than any other day? People want to spend a lazy weekend watching a James L. Brooks or a Woody Allen film because they offer a comforting vibe that is perfect for these times. Brooks is a curious sort of auteur. His cinematic output is quite small but distinctive. For someone who makes such popular crowd-pleasers, he remains largely anonymous. He is never mentioned in the same breath as other contemporaries like Woody Allen. Perhaps it is because Allen is influenced by Ingmar Bergman and other art house favorites while Brooks comes from a popular T.V. background. He is the rare auteur who listens to and uses audience test screenings to fine-tune his films. Sometimes this backfires on him as it did with a disastrous screening for his musical I’ll Do Anything (1994) that prompted Brooks to take out all the musical numbers. The result was a commercial and critical failure – a rarity for the filmmaker who has won three Academy Awards (a hat trick for Terms) and four additional nominations, including three out of his five films garnering Best Picture nods.
Brooks’ films exist in a strange place. They are not low-brow fare, like Adam Sandler’s raunchy comedies and they are not art house darlings like the Coen brothers films. Perhaps his lack of serious critical attention or cultish adulation from cineastes is a result of his background in mainstream T.V. and his popular sensibilities. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of Spanglish (2004) in the Chicago Reader takes on a confused tone as he does not quite know what to make of Brooks’ films. Rosenbaum writes, “Sometimes Brooks’s ideas are legitimate, but his way of putting them across is dishonest. Sometimes the ideas are dishonest, but his way of putting them across is legitimate.” Judging from the countless interviews Brooks has given over the years it is obvious that he is all about conveying a truthfulness in his work. Obviously, a certain amount of emotional manipulation plays a part but Brooks is never dishonest about it. He is the rare Hollywood player with a conscience. Like one of his protégés, Cameron Crowe (he produced Say Anything... and Jerry Maguire), Brooks believes in the underdog protagonist who may not always succeed by the film’s conclusion but has taken the worst that life can dish out and keeps plugging away.
Spanglish seemed to fly right under the critical and commercial radar despite the presence of Adam Sandler. Perhaps it was the misleading trailers that pegged the film as some kind of goofy Sandler comedy. This could not be farther from the truth as the film’s story is told by a young Mexican girl named Christina (Shelbie Bruce) about her mother, Flor (Paz Vega) and their misadventures in America. Flor gets a job as a housekeeper (in true sitcom fashion we never actually see her do any housework) for the Clasky’s, an affluent family in Los Angeles. They spend a summer in Malibu and bring Flor and her daughter with them. This sets the stage for ensuing drama as John (Adam Sandler) and his wife Deborah (Tea Leoni) drift farther apart while Christina becomes seduced by the Clasky’s lifestyle.
John Clasky was inspired by an unconventional figure from popular culture: Dagwood Bumstead of the long-running comic strip, Blondie. “Dagwood showed up every day, got knocked down, never got to eat his sandwich ... the kids and his wife were always giving him a hard time. [But] he showed up every day and did his deal,” said Brooks in an interview. There is a scene in Spanglish where John makes a sandwich (not quite as impressive as Dagwood’s but delicious looking nonetheless) and is unable to eat it because Flor confronts him about an issue with her daughter.
All of this may seem like a standard sitcom set-up, and it is, but Brooks handles this all with a deft touch, never making these characters too severe. They are quirky in a comic way but with their moments of seriousness. He plays around with archetypes in his films. There is the good character that embodies kindness and selflessness – Debra Winger’s sympathetic character in Terms of Endearment, Helen Hunt’s protective mom in As Good As It Gets and Sandler’s easy-going dad in Spanglish. There is the zany character: Jack Nicholson’s wily ex-astronaut in Terms, Cuba Gooding’s flamboyant agent in As Good and Cloris Leachman’s show business mother in Spanglish. Finally, there is the antagonist, an A-type personality who eventually shows some humanity: Shirley McLaine’s acerbic mother in Terms of Endearment, Albert Brooks’ smugly superior reporter in Broadcast News (1987) and Tea Leoni’s frantic mother in Spanglish.
Brooks’ films straddle the line between comedy, drama and romance but he describes them as comedies “because they won’t live unless we clock a certain number of laughs.” It is this T.V. sitcom aesthetic that often draws scorn from critics and endears him to mainstream audiences. Brooks has a knack for creating engaging, three-dimensional characters and some of the most insightful dialogue in any mainstream studio film. To be fair, his films wear their influences on their collective sleeves. With their melodrama mixed with manic, comic interludes, they feel like feature-length sitcoms, right down to the same cadences and rhythms.
What separates his films from other comedy/drama/romance hybrids is that they have a humanistic streak that is never preachy or sappy. There is a truthfulness to them that resonates. This is an important aspect for Brooks who believes that comedy should “reflect real life because to me it’s more reassuring that we’ll get through.” The characters in his films should face some of the same problems that we all do and in doing so we relate more to them on some level.
What separates Brooks’ films from other romantic comedies is their ability to go effortlessly from comedy to drama in the same scene. He did this most effectively in As Good As It Gets with Greg Kinnear’s character as he recovers after being savagely beaten. In Spanglish, there is a scene where Deborah buys her daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele) clothes that are too small, on purpose, in what she thinks is a subtle way of telling her child to lose weight. She does this in front of the entire family and Flor, humiliating Bernice. The girl is not fat; she’s just a normal kid. It is an uncomfortable scene and we hate Deborah for what she’s done and share John’s frustration. Brooks explores the cruelty that people are capable of but in subtle ways. In As Good As It Gets, Nicholson’s character has a myriad of prejudices but the script tempers them with humor and sensitivity.
Those expecting Spanglish to be a typical Sandler film will be disappointed. Brooks prolongs his first on-screen appearance for as long as possible and when it does happen it is done in a subtle, understated way with no fanfare. For the first half of the film, Sandler plays a supporting role, allowing the other actors room to do their thing and then in the last half he comes to the foreground as the drama between him and Leoni’s character comes to a boil. As brilliant as he was in Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Sandler is even better in Spanglish, dropping most of his usual shtick by playing a nice, normal guy who loves his family. He hits all the right comedic beats but in a quiet, restrained way and ably handles the serious moments too.
Cloris Leachman is the surprise scene-stealer as Brooks gives the veteran actress some of the film’s funniest lines. She teaches her grandson Georgie (Ian Hayland) old jazz standards to get over his nightmares. Leachman also gets the film’s climactic speech, a valuable life lesson for Deborah. The one weak link in this impressive effort is Tea Leoni’s character. Why would a nice guy like John ever marry and stay with such an insensitive flake like Deborah? She treats her daughter like crap and is always condescending towards her. The film never answers this question in a meaningful or satisfying way. Leoni certainly has a gift for broad comedy, delivering one of the most enthusiastically awkward sex scenes in recent memory. The only problem is that her performance is constantly at a manic level. There are no nuances, just a shrill, one-note performance.
Spanglish received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “And yet the movie is not quite the sitcom the setup seems to suggest; there are some character quirks that make it intriguing.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “You're in for a treat with this sweetheart of a romantic comedy. Director James L. Brooks (As Good as It Gets, Terms of Endearment) doesn't just write comedy, he crafts it. With his unerring eye for characters, even their hidden dark corners, Brooks makes Spanglish a rich blend of humor and heartbreak.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Thomson wrote, “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.” USA Today’s Mike Clark wrote, “Sandler is the best he has ever been playing the best chef in Los Angeles”
However, in his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Mr. Sandler has a solid, fumbling likability, without which Spanglish would be not merely annoying but despicable in its slick complacency.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “This is a deeply unpleasant movie masquerading as a heartfelt social commentary on life in these United States (or at least in the wealthy republic of Beverly Hills).” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “Brooks creates rich, quirky roles—Cloris Leachman is a hoot as Leoni's alcoholic live-in mom—but the discrepancy between the sizzle of his writing and the flatness of his camera work has never been so noticeable. Spanglish feels hemmed in, visually monotonous.”
It is Flor’s relationship with her daughter that is the ideal image of parenting that Spanglish presents. She uses compassion and kindness but is firm when she has to be. It is this compassion that attracts John to her. They share the same values and views on marriage and parenting. Brooks understands people’s idiosyncrasies. There is always the danger of being too melodramatic or too cutesy. The screenplays of his films are well-balanced and insightful. They fly in the face of the current trend by giving characters a big speech. “The only reason it doesn’t happen so often is because, a lot of times, writers are re-written, and speeches aren’t gonna survive that. Writers having authority over their own work is not an everyday thing. Writers like speeches,” he said in an interview. All of the characters in Spanglish are well-spoken, which is rather ironic considering the language barrier between Flor and the Clasky’s plays an important role.
Ultimately, Brooks’ films are about tolerance and optimism in a time when our society is so cynical and jaded. His films happen in spite of the world outside. Very few mainstream American films deal with class differences and Spanglish tackles it head on as Flor and her daughter’s Mexican heritage clash with the Clasky’s upscale world. With Brooks due for a new film soon, it is high time for this underappreciated effort to be re-discovered and re-assessed. In a time when the Hollywood dramedy is rife with lousy writing and stock characters, we need Brooks’ films now more than ever.