Spanglish(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 4.5.2005)
I've seen James L. Brooks' Spanglish three times now -- once in theaters, once on a transcontinental flight, and once on DVD -- and I like it both more and less each time. More because of Adam Sandler's emerging chops as a dramatic actor, which have improved significantly since his underrated bid in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, and less because of the uphill and quite frankly losing battle to build sympathy for Tea Leoni's wife character. She catapults herself so far over-the-top that the rest of the movie's understated pleasures hardly have a chance to compete. But, then again, perhaps that's the point.
Brooks has always been the master of making unlikeable characters appealing. Nicholson's febrile charm notwithstanding, without the Broadcast News director's sure hand behind the camera, As Good As It Gets certainly could have been anything but. Here, he's firing on all pistons to evoke the reluctant sympathies of his earlier triumphs and for the most part doing a damn fine job.
There's Sandler's long-suffering peacemaker husband, Cloris Leachman's desperately needed comic relief mother-in-law, Sarah Steele's convincing plus-size daughter, and, anchoring the whole motley crew, Paz Vega's sensible but frazzled housekeeper. Collectively, they function much like a real family, frequently teetering on the edge but not quite falling into disarray. The performances -- particularly Vega's and Sandler's -- save the affair from feeling like a soapy melodrama or a Hallmark movie of the week.
The DVD is light on extras but what's included packs a lasting punch. The deleted scenes are consistently superfluous, with the exception of one in which Sandler and Leoni take a "stark raving calm" approach to what might have been a monumental married couple row. Sandler's grasp on Leoni's mental state articulates the unspoken understanding that exists (or perhaps should) between longtime intimates and this will no doubt remind more than a few couples that art does, indeed, imitate life.
Additionally, Brooks provides a commentary track for the film and most of the extras, including test footage of the young actresses who make their respective debuts in the film. But the best feature needs no introduction: Thomas Keller provides a recipe for "the World's Greatest Sandwich," the BLT Sandler makes himself in the movie, and every mouth in the room begins to salivate.
Overall, this film is a rare paean to parenthood that looks at the job as a frequently challenging, hurtful and yet resoundingly worthwhile undertaking. Vega proves herself to be the star that Penelope Cruz never was and, once again, Sandler's worth as a thesp-of-merit has, for this critic at least, been thoroughly proven. As for Tea Leoni? One supposes it's her effectiveness in the role that makes you want to even try to be sympathetic to her narcissistic, insane soccer mom-turned-philanderer. But even if you never come around, Spanglish is worth the effort. To embrace its virtues, you won't even need a translator. Just be sure to watch it more than once. -- Todd Gilchrist