“Deborah Clasky: Mother, I need to say something to you…You were an alcoholic and wildly promiscuous woman during my formative years so I’m in this fix because of you…
Evelyn Wright: You have a solid point dear, but just now the lessons of my life are coming in handy for you.”
Nearly everyone in Spanglish, even almost everyone with screen-time, has a backstory or at least a richly detailed, clearly delineated personality. The equations between the cast are finely modulated, through action and reaction etched into their faces (Evelyn Wright in the scene quoted above) or through the dialogue that prompts a fresh unlooked for response from the character such as this soft-spoken response from Adam Sandler’s John Clasky when talking to his daughter, Bernice:
Bernice Clasky (reading the review of her father’s restaurant aloud): Eating at this perfect, smaller, passionate restaurant inspires one’s own abandonment of caution. To wit…John Clasky is the best chef in the United States.
John Clasky: Look how great you read it.
The whole group seems to be thoroughly sympatico (that was a dialogue reference) with each other. A review I read somewhere took issue with the movie’s dependence on stereotypical characters (drunken mother-in-law, I think it said, and maybe problematic wife, attractive housekeeper?). On the other hand Roger Ebert seemed taken aback by the range of Tea Leoni’s Deborah, though Deborah seemed eminently understandable to me. Her emotions flare-up to delight and spiral downwards into self-absorption and personal misery that crushes every unfortunate in her vicinity, but especially her daughter and her husband. Inappropriate remarks tumble out her mouth every time she talks, and she waits with a disarming vulnerability for a crushing put-down, because she’s aware of all the words,
John Clasky: I think that’s a little…
Deborah Clasky: What? Insensitive? Elitist? Narcissistic? Irresponsible? Perverse? Dizzy? What?…
Open-handed and direct, she remains incapable of shifting her own perspective the slightest bit, paralyzed (one can only assume) by her own feelings and thereby unable to accommodate someone else’s. At one point she congratulates Flor (played by Paz Vega) on her daughter’s appearance, and tells her she could make a fortune at surrogate pregnancy. A joke between similarly situated people, but I was wondering if it could be casually flipped out like that to someone not as mainstream as one was oneself.
I did wonder if the movie set out to contrast two visions of womanhood, through Deborah and Flor’s characters. Each seemed to be beauty worked to the highest possible pitch from two different cultures. The movie does explicitly call out the contrast in the lines (and juxtaposed scenes of Flor and Deborah) about how “dieting, exercising American women” suppress desire for style and become afraid of “all that is good in life” including motherhood. With a lack of self-critique the movie personifies motherhood through the curvaceous Flor, economically vulnerable since her divorce, and now working as a housekeeper. Fortunately, Deborah Clasky’s character does not remain a catch-all for all that is bad in life. She is “infuriated” when John Clasky squeezes her breast to get her to stop talking (perhaps constantly and wrong-headedly, but also sincerely and expressively). Her angst, which if you ask me, is the angst of the contemporary woman terrified that accommodation might mean losing out,giving in or not existing on her own terms, unsure of herself because she has set herself a new, unperformed script to play. It’s hard to do what hasn’t been done before. If she has a chip on her shoulder it’s because it was placed there.
The movie swings more in favour of self-possessed and principled Flor, than the uncertain and destructive wreck that Deborah becomes, and so maybe it seems that women must choose between diametrically opposed paths. But fortunately it is also about other things. Communication is a key theme in a movie about family dynamics and employer-employee relations when the help can’t speak the language. Flor is always certain of herself, but as she experiences challenges she wasn’t expecting she remains sure-footed and even learns how to speak in a new language and take care of herself in a new culture. Three of the adults in the film, John, Deborah, and Flor are concerned with elaborately fine-tuning their communication. Deborah remains the most insistently reliant on vocabulary, expecting words to give new life to a relationship, yet Sandler’s and Paz Vega’s characters achieve the fullest comprehension, despite “communicating in apologies” and not having a large number of mutually understood words between them.
Spanglish packs in a great deal of perspective into two hours. It is a warm and credible look at cultural values, relationships and communication.