Paz Vega, Tea Leoni, ...
Credit: Spanglish: Bob Marshak
  • Movie

Nobody doesn’t love Téa Leoni, and here’s proof: Although in the curdled, sitcom-y Hollywood fantasy Spanglish she plays one of the most vengefully conceived, relentlessly humiliated wealthy-white-wife villainesses in memory, Leoni walks away with her dignity. And although her Deborah Clasky is a 21st-century L.A. she-devil without any redeeming truthfulness — the Lexus of hard-bodied neurotics, and not in a ha-ha way, either — the actress retains our sympathy and even our goodwill. And she does so not because her frivolous, hurtful, self-absorbed, whipping girl of a character earns it, but because Leoni, a willowy comedienne of sharp-angled, made-for-screwball charms and intelligence, so determinedly throws herself into the contortions of shallowness demanded by writer-director James L. Brooks.

This is a deeply unpleasant movie masquerading as a heartfelt social commentary on life in these United States (or at least in the wealthy republic of Beverly Hills). It’s a boon neither for Leoni fans, nor for fans of Adam Sandler (who plays Deborah’s passive, nice-guy husband, John), nor for aficionados of Paz Vega, a beautiful Spanish actress (more voluptuously seen in Sex and Lucía) from the Hayek-Cruz school of Latin-accented loveliness. (Vega is to Mexican domestics, I guess, what Renée Zellweger is to British chubettes.) And its sourness has little to do, in the end, with the unvarnished, class-contrast premise: When Deborah, the insecure wife of a genial but distracted man and the toxic mother to a teenage girl (Sarah Steele), hires the soft and warm Mexican immigrant and devoted single mother Flor (Vega) as a housekeeper, Deborah’s WASPy coldness and hardness become even more glaring to her family. And the differences make a big impression on John, a likable guy whose invisibility doesn’t stand in the way of his roaring success as a famous restaurant chef.

How Deborah gets her comeuppance, how Flor toughens up, how John develops a temporary spine, how John and Flor are smitten by each other’s exoticness, how the contrasting daughters prepare to take their places as women either just like or exactly the opposite of their mothers, and how the wonderful Cloris Leachman casually walks away with the movie as Deborah’s hard-drinking mom takes up the rest of the running time. But the story line explains little of the unsubtitled language of anger spoken here by Brooks, a Hollywood veteran who was once the softie behind Terms of Endearment and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and is now a muttering cynic.

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 128 minutes
  • James L. Brooks