Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Skeleton Twins, featuring serious turns from former SNL costars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, has us thinking about other dramatic departures from comedic actors.
There are plenty of hammy musical cues and cheesy, manipulative moments in James L. Brooks’ 2004 dramedy Spanglish, but those aren’t the worst of its problems: It’s also a lopsided hate-letter to one of its two main female characters. Téa Leoni plays the self-centered, spoiled, crazy shrew to Adam Sandler’s calm, creative, loving husband, with the entire film pushing him toward an affair with their charming, smart housekeeper, played by Paz Vega. But if you can put that aside, along with the voiceover framing device—not necessarily an easy thing to do—Spanglish has, at its core, some really great performances.
Leoni embraces the awfulness of her character with fierce guilelessness where a lesser actor might have tried to find some sympathy. Cloris Leachman, as Leoni’s drunk mother, is terrific in all of her scenes, whether she’s delivering a withering put-down (“Lately your low-self esteem is just good common sense”) or actually tackling Leoni. And then there’s Sandler, looking perhaps for the critical love that he got a couple of years earlier as the man-child in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. His Spanglish character is really just the less complicated, fully angelic version of Barry Egan, Punch-Drunk Love’s violence-prone protagonist. In Spanglish, he always makes the right decisions, always loves his children, and only wants a good life in which everyone is nice to each other. When his anger bubbles to the surface—particularly in the scene where Leoni admits to an affair—he’s convincingly vulnerable and surprisingly nuanced. Like Leoni, he doesn’t have much to work with: He’s too good and she’s too bad for Spanglish to ultimately read like anything more than a multi-cultural fairytale. But they save the movie from drowning in its own treacle, which is saying something.
Availability: Spanglish is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix or your local video store. It’s also available to rent or purchase through the major digital services.