Several years after emigrating from Mexico, beautiful and fiery single mom Flor leaves behind the safety of her Hispanic community to go to work for an upscale, white, suburban L.A. family. Though grateful at first for a chance to better provide for her daughter, Flor’s inability to speak English becomes one of several frustrations she faces in the Clasky household.
Deborah, the self-absorbed and hyper-edgy mom, clearly runs the show. The laid-back dad (a gourmet chef-on-the-rise named John) does what he can to support his wife while protecting his kids from her manic manipulations. He may not be doing enough. Most damaged is oldest daughter Bernice, whose roundish figure provokes rail-thin Deborah to badger her about losing weight.
When the family, which includes Deborah’s mother, an alcoholic and former jazz singer, moves to a beach house for the summer, Flor is forced to live in, along with her 12-year-old daughter, Christina. Christina is awed by the affluence of the family. Worse, Deborah takes to the beautiful young girl right away, leading Flor and Deborah to clash over influence.
As Flor finally begins to learn English, she is attracted to John’s kindness even as she fumes over Deborah’s endless selfishness. Everything comes to a head on the night Deborah decides she must tell John she’s been having an affair, prompting John and Flor to make some choices about their own mutual attraction.
Flor loves her daughter and makes multiple sacrifices to provide for and protect her. She also sacrifices to care for Deborah’s daughter, Bernice, when Deborah does a particularly hurtful thing. A strong role model, Flor is committed (mostly) to standing up for what she believes is right, even when that means not giving her daughter what she wants. John also clearly loves his wife and kids; he takes time to listen to and understand them. He’s kind to Deborah even while she’s treating him badly.
Deborah’s mom chooses sobriety toward the end of the movie and wisely warns her daughter that her affair is about to cost her a very good husband. Deborah’s narcissism and resulting near-ruin of her family are truthfully revealed as evil.
[Spoiler Warning] John and Flor recognize that acting on their mutual attraction (at this point they’ve already spent an evening kissing) might make them happy but would cost them and their families far too much. Flor says, “There are some mistakes you cannot risk when you have children.”
Once when Deborah is ranting, John quietly says, “Great God in heaven, save me.” Flor and Christina say they understand guilt because they’re Catholic. When Flor and John are alone late at night at his restaurant, she says something like, “If I hadn’t worked for you and we didn’t know each other so well, this would be a sin.” John says to Flor, “God bless the guy who gets you.”
The attractive Flor tends to wear formfitting and sometimes revealing clothing. John moves his hand inside his wife Deborah’s robe. And the couple is shown in a PG-13-stretching sex scene played partially for humor and to demonstrate her selfishness. (We see her having a prolonged orgasm while she pounds on his bare chest. She’s in a sports bra; both are covered below the waist.)
John is clearly attracted to Flor, clumsily getting too close to her once when he’s drunk and at another time asking her to move so he can stop staring at her body. Later, Deborah admits to having sex with another man. Eventually, John and Flor acknowledge their feelings for each other and kiss passionately.
A woman walks into a closed sliding-glass door, bloodying her nose.
The f-word is used once and implied another time. The s-word is spoken a handful of times, along with “d–n” and “h—.” God’s and Jesus’ names are used for swearing more than 10 times.
Drinking is a regular part of life in the Clasky household. Deborah’s mom is an alcoholic and her excessive drinking is played for laughs for quite some time before it’s treated more seriously. John gets drunk. But at one point he agrees with Flor not to drink to keep both of their heads clear.
Flor and Christina are shown immigrating to the U.S. illegally, and the issue is never raised again.
Spanglish is a long, odd mix that ultimately fails to satisfy. Writer/director James L. Brooks specializes in relationship comedy/dramas that follow interesting characters through meandering stories. He repeats the pattern here to lesser effect, though, than in past critical faves As Good As It Gets and Terms of Endearment. His work offers moments of laughter and real insight, but not enough of either.
The characters still fascinate—especially Téa Leoni as the tightly wound and unlikable suburban mom and Paz Vega as the fiercely independent Flor making her stand in a strange land. But the film’s glacial pace, lack of focus and near non-performance from a seemingly dumbstruck Adam Sandler gives us too much time to lose interest in what happens to these people.
Some of the film’s specific content is objectionable, but the messages delivered in Spanglish are (eventually) mostly positive. The dad demonstrates a rare ability to empathize with his family and meet their emotional needs, especially those of his teenage daughter. Infidelity is rejected as a worthwhile option for all parties, even when a spouse has cheated first. And the grandmother is acknowledged for her wisdom. My favorite moment is when Deborah tries to manipulate her mom by saying, “You always make me hate myself.” The reply? “Lately, your low self-esteem is just good, common sense.”
Those messages about the power of and need for selflessness in families aren’t enough, however, to transform a family drama into a family film—or to overcome the mostly tedious journey required to receive them.