Friday, January 14, 2005

Some Respect for Spanglish, Please?

I don't expect James L. Brooks's Spanglish to be nominated for any Oscar awards, much less win any. (I think the odds are looking good for The Aviator, a perfectly competent and entertaining bit of Hollywood moviemaking with some scenes of real bite, drama, and flair, to walk away with a fair number of awards, most especially the Best Director Oscar which the Academy has been half-heartedly trying to give to Martin Scorsese for years.) Frankly, Spanglish isn't award material: it's narrative focus is too confused, the tone bounces back and forth between melodramatic and gonzo; all in all, it doesn't sell itself. But it bothers me that the mixed reviews it has received (hammered by A.O. Scott in the New York Times; praised by David Edelstein in Slate (scroll down)) have likely partly contributed to its failure to develop much momentum. Of course, it's not really a movie with much momentum, and it's certainly not building to anything monumental; it is a slow, observant, humble film, cobbled together out of a lot of glorious parts, many of which are, on their own, better than the movie as a whole. More than most domestic dramas, this one is well served by being taken apart. (The following assumes you've seen the film; if you haven't, please consider checking it out tonight.)

What's going on in Spanglish? Two kinds of liberalism are on display: for Deborah Clasky (and husband John too, though less so), one's liberty is tied up in mobility and accomplishment; for Flor Moreno, liberty is identity and holding true to one's authentic self. Both are obvious caricatures, of course, and it's not as though there's a real or even accidental political parable to be discovered in this movie. Nonetheless, as you think about the interactions of these two mothers, the Anglo homeowner and the Hispanic housekeeper, you realize that scene after scene sharply and painfully describes the differences between them and their worldviews. Deborah takes Flor's daughter Cristina out for a day of (very expensive) fun, buying clothes and getting streaks in their hair; Flor, for her part, freaks out when a boy puts his hand on her daughter's butt during a dance, and harshly chastises two rich gentlemen at a bar offering to buy her and her daughter a drink. Deborah can't understand Flor's reaction, and even when Flor insists she must leave the Claskies can't do anything besides give Cristina lots of parting gifts; for her part, Flor is at a loss of words (literally) to describe her feelings when Deborah offers to relocate Flor and her daughter to Malibu for a summer. (May I say that the critics haven't paid nearly enough attention to the timing and range of Shelbie Bruce, who played Cristina; her reactions to the adults around her, her delight in the material opportunities the Claskies offer her, the attention grown-ups direct towards her, the superior feeling her new upper-class friends impart to her--all of it resonated with me as deeply, and painfully true. There is another field in which this conflict of ideals is taking place, involving the daughters. Cristina is gorgeous, like her mother, and smart too; the meritocracy will open wide for her. Bernice (played by Sarah Steele, also excellent), struggling in school and with her weight, by contrast feels little love from the materialistic liberal order around her: liberty is for people who can push ahead, as is made clear by her mother's intense and proud physicality, and the behavior of her erstwhile "friends," who are instantly captivated by the possibilities of the exotic daughter of a housekeeper thrust into their midst.)

I can easily point to the movie's flaws: Flor (Paz Vega) is ridiculously beautiful and principled, Deborah (Tea Leoni) is ridiculously monstrous and insecure, and the idea that easy-going John (Adam Sandler) is "America's finest chef" is just plain silly. Mike Leigh-type realism this ain't. Too much is painted over too easily. Flor and Cristina sneak across the border pulling paisley luggage behind them; they end up dwelling in an L.A. barrio that looks like some happy little ethnic paradise straight out of Brigadoon; and in the end, while Flor does pull her daughter out of the private school which Deborah had opened up for her, Cristina gets to apply to Princeton anyway. But, look beyond what it all adds up to, which isn't much: look at the scenes. Look at the race up from the bus stop, Flor in her working outfit, desperately trying to assert herself in the face of Deborah's easily domination of her daughter, while Deborah, after playing along momentarily, hurls her sculpted body past her maid (commenting easily about how the cable guy has arrived while she does so!), then turning around and with--painfully condescending sincerity--tells Flor, quite honestly I'm sure, that she "loves her for trying." That's maybe the best scene, but there are dozens of other good ones. John's multiple confrontations with Flor, pitch-perfect renditions of frustration, temptation, and confusion. (Adam Sandler wears the wisdom the screenplay endows him with easily, deepening it with some nice scenes at his restaurant and elsewhere, making it clear that he's the sort of person who desperately wants to evade details and confrontations and just concentrate of that which gives him pleasure. That sounds like he's a narcissist, and in some ways it does make John an oblivious, weak character, slow to pick up on the pain his wife is inflicting on their housekeeper; but in other ways it makes him sensitive to the small pleasures of others, such as when he reproves Flor for being so principled that she'd make her daughter give up the money which she'd earned in a job which John had thoughtlessly but nonetheless honestly extended to her.) Cloris Leachman as Deborah's mom, Evelyn, is terrific; again, it's not clear how or if she's supposed to fit into the whole arc of things, but she brings grace to the messy reality (tactfully and believably presented) of jealousy, infidelity, and forgiveness. (And brush off those reviewers who say that Brooks tacked a false happy ending onto the story of the Claskies--we don't know the end of their story; it's left hanging, in Deborah's first mature words in the whole movie, and in Bernice's and John's caring arms.) Is Flor's triumph over Deborah a cost-free, unambiguous one? Is she too much of a noble heroine? Maybe; in terms of philosophy, I may prefer Flor's insistence on recognition over Deborah's financing of rights, but I've no illusions that you can ever comprehensively stipulate one over another, especially in a world as socially and economically unequal as our own. (Probably a great many actual illegal immigrants housekeepers across America seeing this film would consider Flor a monster for trying to prevent her daughter from "turning American"--isn't that what they sacrificed coming here for?) But then, we've had plenty of inverted-Spanglish movies over the years, in which climbing the ladder of assimilation is made easy and celebratory. (Bend It Like Beckham, anyone?) I don't mind Hollywood embracing class and using it to turn the authenticity arrow in a different direction, if just this once.

This is a great movie, a great study, of two very different ways of addressing parenting, barriers (of money, morality, language and sex), false judgments and unmeant hurts, competition, etc.; Melissa and I thought it one of the best dramas we'd seen in many years. (Plus: it's often pretty damn funny.) I've no idea if anyone reading this will get as much out of the movie as we did, but if you're a parent, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


You write, "it's not as though there's a real or even accidental political parable to be discovered in this movie."

You note that both Flor and Deborah are caricatures. True (though they're not the only ones in the film). But Flor is a positive caricature, while Deborah is an entirely negative one. And those caricatures extend outwards. Mexican culture, like Flor's character, is portrayed as genuine, humble, poetic, principled, and above all authentic. American culture, like Deborah, is crass, materialistic, selfish, brutal, and unrefined. All positive on one side, all negative on the other.

Had the film been what you seem to think it was, I would agree that it could be well worth watching. But, to achieve that, you need parity. Either treat both sides sympathetically (so as to avoid setting up a strawman), or rip them both to shreds. Brooks doesn't do that. He has blind spots. He can see nothing positive in Deborah. He sees nothing negative in Flor. That's not careful observation. It's a trite, would-be critique of the American rich by reference to something not far off from a noble savage stereotype. Cheap, easy, superficial.

Not a bad movie. But not a very good one, either.


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