Under its sitcom setup--beautiful Latina housekeeper who speaks no English goes to work for rich, dysfunctional white family in Bel Air--James L. Brooks's "Spanglish" has a lot on its mind. This culture-clash comedy is about parenting; Latin and Anglo notions of masculinity, femininity and family; the lure and perils of assimilation, as well as the dangers of getting a four-star restaurant review in The New York Times. The man who made "Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News" can always be counted on to explore crannies of upper-middle-class life that Hollywood usually ignores. "Spanglish" isn't Brooks's best (a tall order), but it feels like one of his most personal.
Adam Sandler and Tea Leoni are the Claskys, whose shaky marriage becomes even more unhinged when Flor (Paz Vega) and her smart 12-year-old daughter Christina (Shelbie Bruce) enter their lives. Deb (the spectacular Leoni) is a self-loathing, self-absorbed neurotic. She's the sort of clueless mom who thinks she's being helpful buying clothes for her heavyset daughter (the terrific Sarah Steele) a size too small. John (Sandler), on the other hand, is a soulful, self-abnegating master chef who expresses himself forthrightly only in the kitchen. He's drawn to the vibrant Flor, and she to him, but they spend most of the time sublimating their feelings, which creates a sweet, unexpectedly sexy chemistry between Vega and Sandler.
Brooks creates rich, quirky roles--Cloris Leachman is a hoot as Leoni's alcoholic live-in mom--but the discrepancy between the sizzle of his writing and the flatness of his camera work has never been so noticeable. "Spanglish" feels hemmed in, visually monotonous. There are signs that a lot has been cut, and in trimming his film Brooks may have squeezed too tight: his movie needs breathing space. The recipe is gourmet, but this cake never fully rises.