I’m hard pressed to say it’s a sex scene. It’s more of a master… bedroom scene.
— Téa Leoni, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, 16 December 2004
In writing her application essay for Princeton, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) recalls herself as an adorable, precocious, bilingual 12-year-old. According to the essay, the person she admires most — “no contest” — is her mother, Flor (Paz Vega). In the extended flashback that makes up Spanglish, Flor appears resolute and highly ethical, both qualities that help her survive as a maid for white folks in Bel Air. Though the Mexican-born Cristina at first believes that assimilating is the surest route to happiness in America, she finds that her mother’s adamant, if discreet, sense of detachment from their employers is indeed the healthier option.
This too-familiar culture clash forms the basis of James L. Brooks’ sitcommy movie, introduced by way of a few stereotypical moments: Flor’s husband leaves her while the child listens tearfully from another room; mother and daughter cross illegally into California, where they move into a barrio apartment with Flor’s sister. After working multiple jobs for years (and resolutely not learning English), Flor decides she needs one relatively well-paying job, so she has the time to watch over her blossoming daughter. And so she starts working for the Claskys, mild-mannered chef John (Adam Sandler) and his unhappy, hyper-competitive wife Deborah (Téa Leoni). A one-time professional something, Deborah describes herself now as “a full-time mom (gulp!)” who keeps a household that is “very loose and meticulous at the same time.”
This household is filled out with Deborah’s alcoholic, former singer mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), hardly overweight daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele), largely unnoticed son Georgie (Ian Hyland), and a fetch-obsessed dog named Chum — the sort of “dramedic” supporting cast that typically shows up in a James Brooks movie. Flor’s position amongst these banal eccentrics is odiously indicated during her interview, when Deborah determines that she pronounces her name like “what I walk on, right?”
It’s hard to imagine an employer more obnoxious or willfully ignorant, and the film treats Deborah with predictable disdain: she’s the wife who doesn’t understand, the rich lady who will never have enough. Every morning, she turns her jog up the hill to her home into a race with whoever happens to be in the way (“Left!” she roars repeatedly, as she huffs past); 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 scolding the kids), and he offers an offhanded gesture in return, she confronts him immediately: “Do you really think that cupping my breast is going to resolve the issue here?” She could have been right about this, but Spanglish doesn’t cut her a break. John is the inundated, long-suffering hero, Deborah’s the 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 mostly puts up with the white folks’ craziness, until she witnesses Deborah’s effort to make Bernice fit into a set of new clothes, all sized too small. Equally bothered by Deborah’s disparagement and John’s inability to stand up for Bernice, Flor alters the clothes so Bernice can wear them. The girl is understandably touched by this act of kindness and quite smitten. Similarly moved, John begins to see Flor as an alternative to his increasingly unmanageable, self-obsessed wife. His own frustrations lead him to focus on his restaurant (cursed with a four-star review, which to John means more hours and less neighborhoody warmth) and occasional tears that he tries to hide from Flor by wiping them on his seatbelt should strap (much to her horror, as she has, notes Cristina, “firsthand knowledge of Latin machismo”).
Though Flor initially keeps Cristina separate from her job, eventually she agrees to bring her along to live with the Claskys on the beach for the summer. The girl is delighted by the ocean, the games, and Deborah’s interest in her: slim, polite, and bright, Cristina is not-Bernice, a potential “project.” But when Deborah arranges for Cristina to attend a white prep school, Flor resists the potential loss of traditional values (self-respect, kindness) and immersion in a stereotypically crass materialism, demonstrated acutely when Cristina wants to watch Charlie’s Angels with her new blond friends rather than attend a birthday party back in the barrio. Cristina’s quite willing to overlook the Claskys’ lunacy and emulate their careless affluence.
Flor at last expresses her discomfort to John. With Cristina translating (very capably — Bruce is excellent acting out both adults’ anxieties), they express their complaints concerning each other and Deborah. 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 (which she does in a matter of weeks) and commiserating with John, Flor is enchanted by his cheffish talents.
Much as Spanglish makes their mutual attraction look magically real and charming, 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 the put-upon nice guy, not responsible at all for his familial woe. His interest in Flor looks reasonable because 1) she’s incredible (seemingly naturally “gorgeous,” as Deborah describes her, as well as commendably dedicated to her child), and 2) you already know that Deborah is sleeping with an exceedingly seedy real estate agent (Thomas Haden Church).
As Deborah’s behavior turns so disruptive as to incite her own mother’s judgment (“Right now, your low self-esteem is starting to look like common sense”), the cultural, emotional, and political Other, embodied by Flor, looks ever more enticing. Spanglish doesn’t so much resolve this dilemma as divert from it, returning to its early focus on the working class mother-daughter relationship (see also: Helen Hunt and Jesse James in Brooks’ last film, As Good as it Gets). John becomes a better man for his distraction from the relentlessly unconsidered sameness of his life. That’s not to say he’ll give up his SUV, a swimming pool, and the career he loves. Flor, meanwhile, still has to ride the bus to work.