Language lesson

Patronizing Spanglish requires suspension of belief

James L. Brooks' Spanglish is pure pidgin entertainment. Communicating badly in either tongue, Spanglish is a mutation of comedy and drama that makes you want to cringe and laugh in all the wrong places.

Spanglish is the tale of a soulful Hispanic cleaning lady, Flor (Paz Vega), who bewitches a spoiled, neurotic L.A. family with her salt-of-the-earth charms and the kind of mamacita curves found on a tequila ad.

Flor's nemesis is her neurotic employer, Deborah Clasky (Tea Leoni), a blond Bel Air trophy wife. A cartoonish head case and paragon of all things wrong with Anglo culture, Deborah terrorizes her family with her shabby chic perfectionism. She shames her teenage daughter for being too chubby, her husband for being too nice, and her live-in mother for being too drunk (played by Cloris Leachman, who steals the film). While Deborah is a study in superficiality, her husband, John (Adam Sandler), is a superstar chef with a streak of integrity so deep he actually chafes at the potential damage a four-star review from The New York Times will do in transforming his humble, friendly neighborhood bistro into a grotesque Hollywood scene.

Spanglish is narrated by Cristina (Aimee Garcia), who tells the story of how her single mother, Flor, fled Mexico with a pair of suitcases on wheels only to end up working for the Claskys. Flor arrives just in the nick of time to give the members of the Clasky household the touch of maternal grace they so desperately need.

Spanglish is not without its flashes of wisdom. For its first half, Spanglish is rich with astute social observations about the pretenses of upper-middle-class life. Brooks is aware, for instance, that the sword cuts both ways and that the maternal warmth Flor offers Deborah's children is answered in Deborah's moneyed, glamour girl image that seduces Flor's own 12-year-old daughter. When young Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) falls under Deborah's spell, an interesting wrinkle in the story emerges as Flor seethes at how easily her daughter is co-opted by the world of overflowing money and fun.

But when Brooks switches over to romance mode, Spanglish begins to die a slow death.

The soulful man/woman stuff Brooks works into the film is bloodcurdling, especially for how it sets the stakes in its battle for John's heart between Flor and Deborah. Ball-busting Deborah — who is asked to represent everything wrong with contemporary womanhood — clearly has little chance against Flor, a domestic femme fatale handy with the dustpan and soup pot. Flor is all huggable, womanly curves, and John is soon looking dewy-eyed as he appraises the limpid brown eyes and slammin' body of his cleaning lady. Brooks makes a ham-fisted effort to prove he is down with the common folk, but there is something about Flor's Playboy body and angelic face that makes his shout out to strong, proud Mexican womanhood seem a little less noble.

In grown-man mode — and as a romantic lead — Sandler requires an enormous suspension of belief. Sandler's range could be measured in inches. He offers two emotive buttons: shrieking like one of his patented teenage imbeciles to express passion and then mumbling into his collar like some shy puppy dog to convey sensitivity.

Brooks has a thing for cartoonish, over the top parodies of Los Angeles superficiality and screwy family dynamics, which are oftentimes deserved. But in Spanglish, his funny observations of L.A. pride and prejudice becomes noxious when combined with his patronizing treatment of heart-of-gold immigrants. And his suggestion that driven, insecure, hyper-competitive American women could learn a thing or two about pleasing a man from a sensitive, maternal, good-with-the-mop woman like Flor casts a pall over his feel-good comedy.