Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Spanglish" gently nudges at the culture wars


The Sony-Columbia film “Spanglish”, directed by James L. Brooks, came out over Christmas in 2004, but it sounds more recent, maybe because the cultural issues in this long but gentle comedy stick to the ribs. The story is told by the bilingual daughter Cristina (Shelby Bruce), who accompanies her mother Flor (Paz Vega) across the border to settle in a kind of little Mexico: Texas isn’t quite as homey to them as LA, where they settle.

Cristina longs to assimilate, a major concept of the film. (In fact, one of my novel plots, a young “European” Hispanic boy from Texas is already “assimilated” as he interacts with the life of a covert CIA agent, so the concept registers). Flor takes a job as a domestic in a well-to-do family of a chef John (Adam Sandler) and his rather narcissistic wife Deborah (Tea Leoni). We have the elements of misbehavior and love triangles (PG-13), which Cristina narrates almost in the style of a “Gossip Girl”. She makes astute comments. For example, American women give up their femininity and natural maternal instinct in order to compete, an idea that would resonate with social conservatives (like the authors of that book “The Natural Family” that I reviewed recently). Or, how in any family there has to be a social pecking order, and how people have to interact whether they want to or not. Sometimes you want to be left alone to do your own thing, and family members won’t let you.

The title of the film refers to the jargon of “American” Spanish, where English and Spanish words are used interchangeably, with false cognates sometimes taking on new meaning. High school kids, for example, know that “la tarea” means homework.

Sandler, except for one bedroom scene, is not quite as over-the-top as in Waterboy and “Big Daddy.”

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