Spanglish (2004)

White America beckoned.
— Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), Spanglish

That behavior, for a Mexican kid, is unthinkable.
— James Brooks, commentary, Spanglish

Writing her application essay for Princeton, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) recalls herself as a precocious, bilingual 12-year-old. Describing the person she admires most (“no contest”) her mother, Flor (Paz Vega), she initiates the extended flashback that makes up Spanglish. Crossing over (illegally) from Mexico to the U.S. in order to make a better life for her daughter, single (abandoned) mom Flor crosses illegally (and stereotypically, carrying suitcases across a river) to California. Though Cristina at first believes assimilating is the surest route to happiness, she eventually comes to understand her mother’s commitment to her own background. “In order to raise me properly,” Cristina says in voiceover, “my mother needed as much of the security of her own culture as possible.” And so she hangs on to her moral principles and her sense of difference from the Anglos.

Cristina’s version of this familiar culture clash takes the form of a comparison of mothers — Flor and Deborah (Téa Leoni), for whom Flor works as a maid in Bel Air. As director Jim Brooks notes during his DVD commentary (which he shares with editors Richard Marx and Tia Nolan), “One of the commitments the picture always had which was to make sure the whole picture was from her perspective.” Yes and no. Flor’s first interview with Deborah is a scene Cristina will only hear about and reconstruct. Upfront about her discontent as a wife and mother, Deborah introduces herself as a former commercial design executive, now “a full-time mom (gulp!)” who keeps a household she terms “very loose and meticulous at the same time, but it’s all about first names and closeness here.”

The remarkable Leoni plays Deborah at full throttle. While Brooks praises her “ability to gut-check” (“She had to thread a needle we couldn’t see”), Nolan appreciates the character’s complexities: “She may be dark and not nice to her children, but she’s vulnerable too.” Brooks adds his own complexities: “There’s something in doing the American career woman, from this perspective, where most career women carry around this load of guilt which she plays every second, her load of guilt, and don’t quite want to look at it, and there’s still the myth that you can be the perfect career mom and the perfect mom at the same time. And this is a woman who lives nakedly with the price you have to pay when you try and do both of those things. And that turns out, I think, to be very sociopolitical… which is a word for ‘Watch it, buddy.'”

Deborah is perpetually undone by what she perceives as judgment by her family, including her husband, affable if anxious chef John (Adam Sandler, whose performance Brooks praises as “never a false moment”), her alcoholic, former singer mother Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), hardly overweight daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele, “this enormously winning kid,” as Brooks rightly describes her), largely unnoticed son Georgie (Ian Hyland), and a fetch-obsessed dog named Chum (Marx observes that they spent time during production “trying to figure out how to tone her down”). That is, she’s surrounded by Brooks’ usual “dramedic” supporting cast. Flor’s position amongst these banal eccentrics is odiously indicated when Deborah determines that she pronounces her name like “what I walk on, right?” And Deborah’s position is also made plain: when she’s unable to get this pronunciation right, she can only fret, “Is there some school of the ear I’m flunking out of right now?”

It’s hard to imagine an employer more obnoxious or willfully ignorant, and the film treats Deborah with predictable disdain: she’s the mother who doesn’t understand, the wife who’s too self-absorbed, the rich lady who will never have enough. Leoni sees the script as an example of Brooks’ ability to “pierce human truth and make it ooze for you” (this in the typically promotional HBO First Look episode included on the DVD; other extras include a DVD-ROM shooting script, casting sessions for the children, and a cutesy piece on “How to Make the World’s Greatest Sandwich,” with Chef Thomas Keller, whose job at the French Laundry restaurant provided background — specifically, sanity — for John’s work). That this truth is painful is appropriate; that it targets Deborah specifically seems too easy.

Every morning, Deborah turns her jog up the hill to her home into a race with whoever happens along (“Left!” she roars repeatedly); she disregards her children and resents John. When she tries to pick a fight (insisting that he be “on the same page” with her when it comes to the kids), and he can’t think of what to do except go through the motion of affection, she confronts him immediately: “Do you really think that cupping my breast is going to resolve the issue here?” She’s right about this, but Spanglish doesn’t cut her a break. John is the longsuffering hero, Deborah’s the overbearing, needy culprit. When she hustles him into the bedroom for a quickie, he literally lies beneath her while she works herself to climax, then offers up a standard Sandler sad-face when she’s done.

Flor and Deborah begin to compete over mothering, each interfering with the other’s daughter, an unspoken, unconsidered struggle initiated when Cristina comes to live with Flor and the Claskys on the beach for the summer. “The first time one sees natural beauty which is privately owned,” Cristina says in voiceover, “oceans as people’s backyard, confounds the senses. I didn’t know God had a toy store for the rich.” Deborah sees in Cristina a beautiful and eager “daughter,” and the girl is thrilled by the “white woman”‘s interest in her at the same time she begins to see Flor’s work as an embarrassment.

Fittingly and complexly, Flor expresses her own discomfort to John via the smitten Cristina. When John points out that Flor has meddled with Bernice’s upbringing, rather like Deborah is interfering with Cristina’s, they come to terms (essentially agreeing that Deborah is the problem). Turning her energies toward learning English and commiserating with John, Flor is soon enchanted by his sensuality (indicated by his dedication to details of cooking and resistance to four-star restaurant success), as he is by her comprehension of nuance (this opposed to Deborah’s desperation for definition). As charming as they appear together, the prospect of John and Flor’s romance remains alarming, and not just for the questions it raises about sleeping with the help. Equally troubling is the film’s proposition that John is merely trying to make sense of the girls around him, and not responsible for his domestic disarray (Nolan points out that Brooks called the character “Dagwood Bumstead”). His interest in Flor looks reasonable because she’s incredible (“gorgeous,” as Deborah describes her, as well as commendably dedicated to her child), and Deborah is sleeping with a smarmy real estate agent (Thomas Haden Church).

Deborah’s disruptions incite her own mother’s judgment (“Right now, your low self-esteem is starting to look like common sense”) and the audience’s. Confessing her betrayal to John, she turns it into his problem: “I want us to be close. I want to feel like you’re not nuts to be in love with me.” As Brooks notes here, “That’s the sort of wild thing about Deborah, because as people judge her in everything else, you can’t be talking from your heart more than when she says, ‘I want to feel you’re not nuts to be in love with me.’ That’s all about her sense of worthlessness and her regard for him… It’s goofy and totally sane at the same time, I think.”

At the same time, Flor, embodying the cultural, emotional, and political other, looks all the more enticing. Spanglish doesn’t so much resolve this dilemma — John’s, yours — as divert from it, returning to its early focus on the working class mother-daughter relationship. John becomes a better man for his distraction. That’s not to say he’ll give up his SUV, a swimming pool, and career. Flor, meanwhile, still has to ride the bus to work.