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Lost in Translation 

James L. Brooks’ Spanglish

Thursday, Dec 16 2004
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Photo by Bob Marshak

In the name of authenticity — or, perhaps, just killer craft services — James L. Brooks enlisted famed French Laundry chef Thomas Keller as the "culinary consultant" on his latest movie, and even based one of its sets on the design of Keller’s restaurant. Maybe Keller should have directed the movie while he was at it. Stuffed with random ingredients, spewing random bits of character and story across the screen for more than two hours, Spanglish is Brooks’ unqualified kitchen disaster — a desperate, shapeless, overreaching big-screen sitcom of a movie that just wants to be loved. Is that so wrong?

In a word, yes. Loosely structured as a study of how people do (or don’t) cope with success (or lack thereof), Spanglish focuses on the lives of the Clasky family: star chef John (Adam Sandler), paralyzed by the fear that a four-star review will transform his cozy bistro into an SRO nightmare; his shrewish wife, Deborah (Téa Leoni), recently downsized from her job as a commercial designer; their two young children; and Deborah’s liquored-up mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), who pines for her former glory days as a jazz vocalist. Not content with these, Brooks keeps piling on the ingredients: Flor (The Other Side of the Bed’s Paz Vega), a Mexican woman who emigrates to Los Angeles along with her bright teenage daughter (Shelbie Bruce) and eventually comes to work as the Clasky’s live-in maid.

Those might have been the makings of exactly the kind of sprawling ensemble comedy-drama Brooks orchestrated deftly in his earlier Terms of Endearment, I’ll Do Anything and Broadcast News. Here, every hesitation that caused the Spanglish shoot to drag on for a Kubrickian six months (with an equally protracted postproduction period) is evident onscreen. The movie never gels, it has no focus, and whatever Brooks thought he was saying about success or about class differences in America gets lost in translation. The actors fare little better — particularly Leoni, apparently playing Brooks’ idea of a Bel-Air housewife with too much time on her hands but coming across more like someone with a severe, undiagnosed case of manic depression. Only the ebullient Vega (making her English-language debut) carves out something close to a believable, full-bodied character. And Sandler has one terrific confrontation with Leoni, in which it’s possible to see what a fine force of reason and calm he might make at the center of some tidier movie’s seriocomic storm.

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SPANGLISH | Written and directed by JAMES L. BROOKS | Produced by JULIE ANSELL, BROOKS and RICHARD SAKAI | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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