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Spanglish (2004)

A comedy with a language all its own.

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 130 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 12a

Casting Adam Sandler and Tea Leoni – two actors best known for their frenetic comedy work – as the secretly miserable married couple in ‘Spanglish’ is a bold move. But, in this latest big screen outing from writer-director James L. Brooks (the ‘Simpsons’ mainstay who was also behind As Good As It Gets) it’s a tactic that pays off big-style.

Sandler sports an ill-advised afro to play John Clasky, a top-ranking chef who – with his big house, four-strong family and quiet, friendly demeanour – would appear to be a man who has it all. That’s certainly the way things look to Mexican immigrant Flor (Paz Vega) when she arrives on the scene to work as the Claskys’ new maid – but it’s not long before it becomes apparent that this is a family in serious turmoil.

At the root of the problem would appear to be John’s wife Debs (Leoni), a nervy flake of a woman who seems to have even more difficulty communicating with her loved ones than she does with the exclusively-Spanish-speaking home help. Trouble is clearly on the horizon, but among all of these awkward, strained relationships, the big question is how long it will take for everything to really kick-off.

Like As Good As It Gets, this is a film not afraid of taking its time to get to where it wants. Coming in at well over two hours, it covers an amazing volume of material, pain-stakingly ensuring we get to know each of its primary characters before allowing itself to move on with the story.

Sandler returns triumphantly to the sort of pensive, subdued display he delivered with such composure in the marvellous Punch Drunk Love, and Leoni puts so much work into her character that I half-suspect she collapsed in a crumpled heap the second the cameras stopped rolling. There’s also a memorable debut from young Shelbie Bruce as Flor’s 12-year-old daughter Cristina. She successfully embarks upon an emotional rollercoaster ride without ever falling into the “annoying whining kid” trap, and plays a pivotal role in one of the film’s best scenes, where’s she’s asked to provide quick-fire translation for a multi-lingual bout of handbags-at-dawn between John and her screen mom. But it’s Vega who really steals the show. It’s her character’s journey that is the most fascinating, and the fact that she spends the first half of the film unable to speak a word of English also adds a splattering of mysticism to her character. Quite simply, her performance here is flawless.

Comedy is Brooks’ forte and, by providing several laugh-out-loud moments, his film doesn’t let us down in that department. But this is also a touching drama, as unconventional and uncomfortable as it is entertaining. It might not be a perfect movie, but it’s still one impressive achievement.

It's Got: A Spanish-English dictionary for Flor.

It Needs: An English-Spanish dictionary for the Claskys.


This engrossing, dialogue-driven piece of work features brilliant performances all round – and could just as easily have been titled ‘Lost In Translation’, had Sofia Coppola not gotten there first.