Dec 30, 2004


James Brooks' Spanglish is a classic case of a film with some great lines and moments wasted by weak character and structure.

The film starts with a storyteller, Cristina, recounting the path that led her, a poor Mexican girl, to apply to an elite American college. Structurally, then, she is the main character and the story line is how her mother, Flor, changed her life.

But this places certain requirements on the character. She must have unique weaknesses and a Need that, through struggle, will lead her to a self-revelation at the end of the story. And since her mother is the main agent for that change, the mother should have weaknesses and a need, otherwise the story is nothing more than hero worship.

But this girl is barely drawn. Yes, she learns the value of keeping her unique Mexican traditions while succeeding in an American world. But there is really no weakness or need defined for this child at the beginning. And mother Flor is such a mature, advanced and beautiful human being from the start that all one should logically do is stare at this woman in awe.

The structure is further confused by the fact that this is a Hollywood mainstream movie. Which means that a little Mexican girl is not going to drive this story. The story will be driven by American movie star Adam Sandler and his movie wife, played by Tea Leoni.

But they haven't been set up structurally to drive the movie. Sandler's character, John, is even more perfect than Flor. His only flaw is being foolish enough to have married Leoni's nutcase character, Deborah, in the first place. Deborah has plenty of weaknesses and needs. But not the kind that show character complexity. Her weaknesses and needs are so extreme she is a caricature. She is the comic version of the mother in Ordinary People, a woman of such towering insensitivity and neuroses that no one could stand to be with her for longer than ten minutes.

Brooks tries to tack on some kind of self-revelation and moral decision when John and Flor admit their love for each other but won't go off together because of what it would do to their kids. But this doesn't work for all kinds of reasons. First, neither one is the structural main character. Second, this is two perfectly righteous characters acting righteously. And three, they are actually making the wrong decision; the best thing that could happen to their kids is to get them as far away from Deborah as possible.

There are some great lines in this movie. But these aren't real people. And that means the mechanics of the storytelling is always right on the surface.