Movies have tried to explain upper-middle class domestic suffocation for a while. Sam Mendes’ American Beauty and the hit prime time TV series Desperate Housewives are a few of Hollywood’s projects that well-captured a portrait of what it meant to be comfortable and bored. I find myself tip-toeing around this subject matter at the risk of opening Pandora’s box of assholes – first-world inhabitant scented. Meanwhile, James L. Brooks’ Spanglish danced around it with light-hearted cynicism all while giving it the serious nods it deserves.
We see Spanglish as equal parts funny and sad in representing the complicated outcomes of domestic drowning, but the bona fide gem of the film is that it makes these outcomes an observable phenomenon from the perspective of a young girl growing up without the luxury of affording suburban boredom. The aforementioned perspective would be that of Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), innocent yet intelligent and, for better or for worse, intensely aware of the dichotomy between her Western American and Latino cultures. She has her mother Flor, played by the beautiful Paz Vega, to thank for this view: Flor and Cristina immigrated from Mexico for a better life in California and landed themselves in the notorious Beverly Hills neighborhood, where well-intentioned stay-at-home moms in Lululemons bored out of their minds make for hilarious cultural divide fodder. Flor is in Beverly Hills with a financially stabilizing deal to clean Deborah Clasky’s (Théa Leoni) house. She is convinced to stay with the Clasky family full-time at their Malibu beach-front summer home on the condition that she can bring Cristina. And from this unfolds hilarious clashing between monachopsis and the languor in what’s supposed to be a fulfilling existence. Meanwhile, characters are developed all around with forgiving understanding that life – ultimately – just is the way it is.
The two plots of cultural displacement and suburb-folk unawareness weave beautifully together in Spanglish. Cristina is confused but wildly entertained by the Claskys, especially by Deborah’s over-compensated kindness to the poor little immigrant girl (Cristina) staying at her house. This overcompensation is unbeknownst to Cristina; as far as she knows, Deborah Clasky is her white-knight-in-shining-armor supplying her with things and experiences that her mother could never afford (Shopping sprees! Private school education! Money in exchange for collecting glass on the beach! ‘Murica!). Deborah is pleased to help Cristina, but her generosity towards Cristina is visibly questionable in the film. She is, after all, mirthless and deathly bored in her plump housewife living where she has everything: big house, good-hearted kids, kind husband, black Ranger Rover parked in the driveway. Midlife domestic comfort has turned her into a child pattering around, complaining of nothing to do. Missing from Deborah’s life is purpose, and Cristina is used to fulfill her seemingly selfish emptiness.
Flor, on the other hand, had her eyebrow raised from the start. And despite her persistence, she can’t un-brainwash the highly impressionable Cristina from being influenced by these people. It’s a passive-aggressive battlefield between Flor and Deborah – two mothers wanting control of shaping a young mind. And this is where the affable Adam Sandler glides the tension along with cuddly humor as the father of the house John Clasky. John is a top chef (we see him cooking consistently throughout the film, and it is terribly addicting to watch) and also a husband at his wit’s end. “Arghhh! I’m running out of excuses for the lady of the house!” he cries while Flor – baffled – blinks at him, unable to understand while noticing his peculiarly Western display of emotions. Spanglish’s script gives way for John’s hilarious one-liners, lightening the complex topics into cute spoofs. “I couldn’t hear you. There was a crack in the planet. WOW..that was noisy!” he observes after he learns Deborah had been cheating on him. John is introspective, but not solemnly serious. And we can’t forget his giant teddy bear of a cushion behind his sternum when it comes to his kids, too. “Worrying about your kids is sanity, and being that sane…can drive you nuts,” he confides to Flor in a heart-to-heart between them. “Don’t worry about [Bernice],” Flor comforts him as she smiles, thinking of John’s daughter. “Nothing can change that heart.” Spanglish sprinkles wisdom on the humor, seasoning a satisfying dose of the feels to the laughs.
If Spanglish’s playful rapport is the side dish to the film’s fine balancing of light and heavy, its art directives are the final cherry on top. Director of Photography John Seale kept the imagery bright and quite colorful with what seems like southern California sunshine every damn day: no sensitivity-inducing graininess to dull the vibe. And we can’t forget John’s cooking scenes: every chop, sizzle, squeeze, and clang is documented and certainly heard. Dialogue isn’t even used in these scenes; cooking is treated like the music by which we are sonically entranced, leaving us just to watch, listen, and salivate.
Second-generation pioneers – has your identity ever confused you? Suburbanites – need some acknowledgement to climb out of that ennui rut? Watch Spanglish. But feed yourself, first.
Written by Dara Kim