- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

Writer-director James L. Brooks’ handiwork is the stuff of classic movie moments. Take Shirley MacLaine’s calamitous first date with Jack Nicholson in the Oscar-winning “Terms of Endearment.” Better still, recall Albert Brooks’ flop-sweat debut in “Broadcast News.”

The deliberate director takes his sweet time incubating such highlights, making a film every five or so years. Maybe he shouldn’t wait so long between outings. With “Spanglish,” Mr. Brooks’ take on left-coast culture chasms, the director exhibits signs of ring rust. While the Latino-Anglo clash eventually finds its footing, it’s a long slog getting there.

“Spanglish” follows Flor (Paz Vega), a determined single mother from Mexico who finds nanny work with the Claskys, a rich L.A. couple who seemingly have it all.

Flor doesn’t speak English. That’s fine, because Deborah (Tea Leoni) doesn’t speak human. Miss Leoni’s aerobicized beauty couldn’t suit her pampered character’s persona any better, but it’s as if Mr. Brooks forgot to let the performance breathe. She’s all caffeinated rants and punishing runs around her manicured neighborhood.

Her idea of relaxation is buying clothes a size or two too small for her chubby daughter, hoping it will inspire her to lose weight.

Deborah’s crackpot ways leave her husband, John (Adam Sandler, his annoying tics in full retreat), exhausted.

We know how he feels.

And by the time the film’s nuanced, but inevitable, attraction between Flor and John blossoms we’re left wondering, “What took them so long?”

The film’s first half feels as manic as Deborah. Mr. Sandler’s chef character doesn’t simply get a rave review from the New York Times; he’s hailed as the best chef in the country. It’s a film teeming with “big moments” when smaller scenes would work just fine, thanks.

In Mr. Brooks’ suddenly stiff hands, the part of Flor teeters on the verge of a Latina stereotype. You know the kind, the stubborn yet passionate sort whose utterances are marked by excessively flashing eyes. Luckily for Mr. Brooks, the dazzling Miss Vega could find texture in a sheaf of plastic wrap.

“Spanglish” is equally generous with Mr. Sandler. The comic actor may have the last laugh over critics who routinely roast his gross-out comedies. His turn here should surprise those who thought his penetrating work in the 2002 drama “Punch Drunk Love” was a fluke.

“Spanglish’s” comic relief comes via Cloris Leachman, who sneakily swipes a half-dozen scenes as Deborah’s tippling mother. Even half in the bag, she provides a quivering voice of reason.

It wouldn’t be a Brooks film without a few standout sequences. A lovemaking scene between Deborah and John during which she takes total charge of her pleasures is a comic gem, as is the intimate dinner John prepares for Flor later in the film.

But getting there isn’t half the fun, and by the time “Spanglish” translates its true meaning, audiences might not be generous enough to lend an ear.

***

WHAT: “Spanglish”

RATING: PG-13 (Sexual situations, mature language and themes)

CREDITS: Written and directed by James L. Brooks. Music by Hans Zimmer and Trevor Morris.

RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonypictures.com/

movies/spanglish

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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