Sunday, February 20, 2005


Admission: I went to see Spanglish primarily because I think Paz Vega is unmissably lovely.

However, the trailer had very nearly set me against the idea and for the first hour I was almost wishing I had followed my instinct on this one. Then suddenly, what had started off as something akin to a wordy sitcom pilot, started growing hairs on the back of its hands.

We never quite got the full werewolf though. The transformation looks and feels awkward and incomplete. You are more aware of the trying than the succeding, much like another James L. Brooks' film I saw a while back, Broadcast News (1987). There are flashes of real penetrative power, but most of the punches are pulled.

For some reason there seems to be a marked absence of action movies in British cinemas at the moment. Instead we have a whole set of films about angsty adults whose lives get spiced up by an injection of the sort of risk and possibility normally associated with youth. The difference between this film and and In Good Company and Shall We Dance is that none of the middle-aged adults are really any better off at the end.

Indeed "None of it works" is the worldly reassurance Flor receives from Evelyn. However you try to manage life's compromises you will fall short of the optimum. Spanglish offers us a vision of how it can go very wrong and very right and in the end we get neither. It's one of those slice of life narratives that doesn't in the end have much of a point to make.

This is also so clearly a story written by a man, that it's almost embarrassing. There's a scenario which made me think of Closer, but Adam Sandler performs like he's been told not to use rude words. (My concerned readers might approve though as I have been spared the need to repeat any major obscenities in this blog.) Watching Sandler doing calm, sensitive bloke is almost as disconcerting as watching George Dubya discoursing on the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism would be.

Usually the only way talented Spanish actresses can get a break in Hollywood is by playing latinas. Meanwhile the talented (or at least big name) latinas generally wouldn't go near these sort of roles anymore.

Paz Vega certainly becomes more and more delightful and alluring as the film winds on, but even when finally conversing in English isn't allowed to be much more than a caricature. She does have a go at the accent, andale andale etc. but something's missing. It's not her fault but there's actually something distasteful going on here; it's as if a white actor with his cheeks covered in shoe polish played the lead in a film about an African slave revolt. If Europeans and Mexicans really were that interchangeable in the white American consciousness, if the only real difference between them was comparative affluence, then California would be a very different sort of place.

Race is just one of the big-ticket issues in this film that is dug up only to be re-buried. Class and infidelity get much the same treatment. I know I could re-write this story broadly following the existing outline and the end result would be something edgier. Maybe edgy wasn't the intention. But then what was? Brooks doesn't really give me a reason to care about the consequences of the situation he has set up.

But the real problem here is that this film affects to tell the story of Hispanic immigrants when it is really a tale of disfunctional anglos in which the Mexicans are playing a secondary, symbolic role. El Norte is still the definitive, serious take on displaced indocumentados awash in WASPish California, mis-communicating across the race and class divide, while Born in East LA is a very good comic one.

I do however have one great line to report from Spanglish: "Your low self-esteem is starting to look like common sense".

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