Spanglish (4/10)

by Tony Medley

James L. Brooks has fashioned some pretty amazing characters for Spanglish. First, he creates a Mexican maid, Flor (Paz Vega), who looks like a Supermodel. She speaks not a word of English. Then there’s her daughter, Christina (Shelbie Bruce), who is fluent in English and precocious, to put it mildly.

Brooks goes on to create a “typical” American family so Flor can work for somebody. The wife, Deborah Clasky (Tea Leoni) is clearly mentally unbalanced. Her husband, John Clasky (Adam Sandler), is a male Mother Theresa he’s so perfect.  Naturally, they also have a precocious daughter, Bernice (Sarah Steele) who is loving and well-adjusted. Rounding out this family is Deborah’s mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), who is a drunk, but a drunk who knows her daughter is ruining her life so she’s just full of good, practical advice.

Deborah has just lost her job so she is now going to become a full time mom. Because of this, she thinks she needs to hire a maid. Am I missing something here? While she was working fulltime and her husband was working full time, she didn’t need a maid. But now that she’s going to be living at home full time mothering her daughter, now she needs a maid? Am I crazy, or is this backwards?

Not surprisingly, the man who created these people, all of whom probably don’t exist on this planet, creates a job interview between Flor and Deborah that must have flown in with Superman. I know something about interviews; I wrote the book. I’ve interviewed Spanish speaking maids. While it’s true that many selection interviewers don’t have a clue about what they’re doing, the interview Brooks creates is so unrealistic and absurd it destroys the credibility of the movie at the outset. Deborah has been a career woman with a commercial design company. She couldn’t be as inept as she’s shown in this interview. Unfortunately, the interview epitomizes the film.

Continuing the fantasy, Flor decides she must learn English, so she buys a combination video-audio course. In no time at all, certainly less than six weeks, she’s speaking English as if she grew up in Brooklyn, even understanding John’s idiomatic speech.

We never see Flor doing any actual work. She sits on the beach a lot (the family is spending the summer in Malibu), spends a lot of time in her room, and spends a lot of time trying to learn English. But we never see her making beds, cleaning the bathroom, doing dishes, or any of the other tasks one would expect a maid to perform. None of the Claskys ever has the temerity to actually tell her something to do. No, according to Brooks, live-in Mexican maids are really just a part of the family, like a visiting aunt. Their feelings must be considered in everything the family does. In fact, the first thing a family must consider is how their maid will react. Most of the time the Claskys are trying to get along with Flor and worrying about her and her child and trying not to hurt her feelings. When her feelings do get hurt, which happens a lot, they spend enormous amounts of time explaining things to her so she’ll understand. On Flor’s part, she has no problems telling the Clasky’s how things should be, never worrying about losing her job, which must be the best job in the history of illegal immigrants, living on the beach in Malibu and not having to do any work.

Then the Claskys decide to get Christina into Bernice’s private school that looks a lot like Marymount, which is an ultra exclusive girl’s high school in Westwood across the street from UCLA, a school where lots of movie stars sent their children (like Loretta Young and Irene Dunne; others who attended were Mia Farrow and Marlo Thomas). Yeah, sure. A Mexican maid’s daughter is going to be accepted into an exclusive, expensive private school. To make sure that the movie is as absurd and divorced from reality as possible, Brooks has Flor get irritated that Deborah not only gets her daughter admitted to the exclusive private school, but gets her a scholarship! Uh, huh.

The tragedy of this film is that it does show a loving father and daughter. John is a good person who really cares for Bernice and has no problem showing emotion and giving his daughter unqualified love and support. Similarly, Flor is a good, caring mother to Christina, who realizes she must sacrifice what seems good for her for what she perceives to be the betterment of her daughter. We need more movies that show caring parents and loving children. This is a movie that does not fail due to the premise, which is that parents’ first responsibility is to their children. It fails because the main story line, the relationship between Flor and the Claskys, is fantasy.

Brooks said, “I think there’s a segment of the audience you should care most about when you’re working on any movie and that’s the people you’re writing about. They’ll know if you’re full of it or not. In this case, if Hispanics felt these portrayals were way off, I’d be devastated.” Well, Spanglish is pretty convincing evidence that he is full of it. Brooks, who admits he has zero knowledge of his subject, hired Christy Haubegger, founder of Latina Magazine, as a consultant on Mexican maids. I don’t know what she told you, Jimmy, but the relationship between Flor and the Claskys is a figment of a rich Hollywood filmmaker’s chimeric imagination. It exists only in your ivory tower, making your film with its promising premise piffle. Next time you want to make a movie, try writing about something of which you have personal knowledge, like the story of how a super rich Hollywood filmmaker who lives in an ivory tower with no contact with or knowledge of the real world actually survives in his day to day life. Does he ever have to have personal contact with real people? What a  fascinating tale that would be! And, Jimmy, you are the guy to tell it.

December 11, 2004

The End