Slick but unshowy, full of middlebrow contrivance and quirk, Spanglish is a big-screen sitcom that doesn't try to pretend otherwise. And why should it? After all, writer/helmer/producer James L Brooks is a US TV maestro whose small-screen sensibilities have mined gold both at the box office and on Oscar night (think Terms Of Endearment and his last directing gig, As Good As It Gets). So here he is with another premise that's pure prime-time: one household, two clashing cultures. Cute kids involved? Definitely. How about a scene-nabbing elderly relative? Of course. And the key comic hook is... Our heroine, Mexican housekeeper and single mum Flor (Paz Vega), doesn't speak her LA employers' lingo. You can see 'em milking that one for a fair few episodes.
The only thing is, if Spanglish really were a feature-length pilot, you wouldn't want to come back for the full series. Not unless, that is, the producers solemnly swore to replace Téa Leoni's Deborah with someone vaguely resembling a sympathetic human being. If Flor is the heart of the film, then Deborah - - a careerist who's lost her job and is facing identity meltdown - - is its shrill, shrieking mouth. Too bad we can't feel any pity, Brooks painting her as the homemaker from hell whose hateful behaviour includes buying her chubby daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele) undersized clothes to `encourage' weight loss.
Demonising Deborah is the film's not-so-subtle way of getting us to root for the budding affection between hubby John (Adam Sandler) and Flor. (See what we mean about contrivance?) Happily, it doesn't take much effort to like this oddball pairing. Seeing Sandler as a top chef, you expect regular nuke-blasts of Gordon Ramsay-style rage. But he surprises with a sweet, self-deprecating performance. Yes, there's the occasional manic flash of the old-school Sandler. Yet even when roaring drunk he's still disarmingly goofy.
Vega, meanwhile, makes a terrific impression in her first Hollywood role, acting much of the time in unsubtitled Spanish but getting the message across with effortless spirit and sex appeal. The inevitable language-barrier laughs prove hearty in places, theshowstopper being the empathic translation of Flor's tirade by daughter Cristina (a bright Shelbie Bruce), body language down to a tee.
Shame then that, while Brooks hits most of his comic beats on cue, he misses some of the big dramatic ones. Overlong and over-talky - - without actually saying that much - - Spanglish eventually tatters the patience. Not exactly as good as it gets, then. But as a mostly engaging, sometimes sparkling slice of domestic dramedy, it's good enough.
A comic culture clash that has some nice sparring but doesn't leave any lasting marks. Sandler and Vega make a great duo; Leoni just grates.