From writer/director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets) comes an "affairs of the heart" film. Most of us have lived through or at least witnessed the themes: looking outside our families for fulfillment; feeling inadequate as spouses, parents, and friends; finally discovering that we know and love someone we should have paid attention to all along. While the content isn't always pretty, the lessons are important. And, Brooks, thankfully, isn't afraid to face these themes, ugliness and all.

On a Brooks' side note, Spanglish would actually fall into the "dramedy" category in which he works so well, because of the way it mixes humor with some intense life situations. In As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson's obsessive-compulsive character had some funny quirks, but those quirks masked a fear of being alone. Brooks enjoys working with characters that seem to have everything: money, possessions, and careers, but his characters are nearly always in an interpersonal rut of some kind.

Tea Leoni and Adam Sandler play a married couple with some 'issues'

Tea Leoni and Adam Sandler play a married couple with some 'issues'

So it is with Spanglish.

In his best role to date (even better than his Punch-Drunk Love turn), Adam Sandler plays John Clasky, a renowned chef in the Los Angeles area. His marriage is at a crossroads, his career is on the rise, and his kids—especially his daughter, Bernie (Sarah Steele)—are the only people keeping him grounded. Now, I'll be honest: I tend to write off Saturday Night Live alumni in dramatic roles. But Sandler is forcing me to change my tune—he brings emotional honesty to this performance. His eyes are always watery, as though he's constantly on the brink of tears. When his character is on screen, you listen. When he says, "Great God in heaven, save me," you aren't looking at the Adam Sandler of SNL's "Canteen Boy" fame. You're looking at a character in a desperate situation—and you actually care for him, because he has so much love to give, but no one listens to him, least of all his own wife.

John (Sandler) meets Flor (Paz Vega) while his wife (Leoni) looks on

John (Sandler) meets Flor (Paz Vega) while his wife (Leoni) looks on

Yes, his wife. Deborah Clasky (played superbly by Tea Leoni, Flirting with Disaster) is a self-centered ("What am I gonna do about me?") ex-business woman who now faces the daily rigors of full-time motherhood ("Gulp!") after a corporate downsizing. Leoni is so good at being so bad that you almost don't want to like her character. But, she's not trying to be annoying. That's the (ahem) annoying part. Rather, she is barely aware that anyone in her own family takes offense at her actions. Consider her act of buying Bernie bags full of clothing ("I couldn't help myself!") … that are intentionally a size too small. Deb's just trying to give Bernie some motivation for losing weight, but Bernie's heartbroken—and Deb doesn't seem to care. Or, is it that she's so self-involved that she doesn't seem to notice?

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There's a bit of a communication problem between Flor (Paz Vega) and Deborah (Tea Leoni)

There's a bit of a communication problem between Flor (Paz Vega) and Deborah (Tea Leoni)

Deb's neurotic behavior is enough to make anyone crazy—except Flor (Paz Vega of Talk to Her), the Claskys' Hispanic housekeeper. At first, the language barrier—Flor doesn't speak English—shields her from Deb's narcissistic behavior. But language barrier aside, Flor's simply too strong a person to be affected by such nonsense. Flor is compassionate, and fiery. As the course of events unfolds, Flor's personality and parenting beliefs conflict with Deb's, resulting in a personal and cultural small-scale war.

Is anyone right? Who will prevail? What will these characters learn, if anything?

The movie is based on the struggles of relationships, with others and with ourselves. Artists shouldn't be afraid to hurt their characters, and Brooks certainly puts his list of candidates on the line, including Deb's hysterical mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman in a role initially awarded to Anne Bancroft), and several children such as Bernie, Georgie (the Claskys' son), and Cristina, Flor's daughter. No one is safe from heartache. But, all are given the power to find peace.

Flor (Vega) and her daughter Cristina, played by Victoria Luna

Flor (Vega) and her daughter Cristina, played by Victoria Luna

Spanglish really deals with affairs of the heart. One character gets involved in an all-out physical affair, and two other characters look to each other as soul mates and share several passionate-but-tense moments leading up to a very intimate evening. While these two characters physically share little more than a kiss, they have dangerously invested far too much emotionally and psychologically.

Brooks' characters have great depth and awareness. Unfortunately, many of them are looking for fulfillment in empty places—lovers' arms, food, property, or other material possessions.

Alas, Brooks leaves the final details to his viewers, who become part of the Clasky family for two hours as the director exposes the highs and lows of humanity. The audience has to figure out what happens behind the beautiful walls of the Claskys' LA mansion. From the beginning of the film, we know we have to hope for and take part in the reconstruction of a marriage. And that's emotionally draining.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Deb struggles to find her identity. What does the Bible say about identity? How could Deb have turned to her family to find peace?

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  1. Do you see any hope for John and Deb? How? Why or why not?

  2. The Claskys have more material wealth than they could ever want. Why aren't they happy? What brings happiness?

  3. At one point, Deb says to Flor, "You must learn English!" Why is Deb blinded to her own behavior? Why does she act so insensitively? How could she change, if she wanted to?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Spanglish is meant for a mature, discerning audience. This is not your typical Adam Sandler bathroom-humor film. In addition to adultery, the film shows an onscreen orgasm and several characters use profane language, including taking the Lord's name in vain. There are also a couple of sexual references.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 12/23/04

While mainstream critics are calling Spanglish a serious stumble from Oscar-regular James Brooks, religious press critics seem surprised and delighted to find a film in which adultery is portrayed as the wrong decision.

Flor (Paz Vega) and her daughter Cristina (Victoria Luna) moved from Mexico to L.A. to try and better themselves. But Flor's new job as a housekeeper for the messed-up, neurotic Deborah (Tia Leoni) becomes doubly complicated when she falls in love with Deborah's husband John (Adam Sandler). Struggling with more than the bilingual brouhahas, Flor must deal with her daughter's adolescence and with a serious clash of cultural lifestyles.

Mary Lasse (Christianity Today Movies) calls the film "emotionally draining" and says, "While the content isn't always pretty, the lessons are important. And, Brooks, thankfully, isn't afraid to face these themes, ugliness and all. Brooks' characters have great depth and awareness. Unfortunately, many of them are looking for fulfillment in empty places—lovers' arms, food, property, or other material possessions."

"Tenderness and compassion, and an admiration for basic virtues, are rare in film," writes Andrew Coffin (World). "Spanglish has all three—and this imperfect but funny and touching film deserves more credit than it's likely to get."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The characters are very well defined and the relationships formed between them are strong and interesting but for some reason Brooks doesn't explore them very deeply. The differing relationships between the two mothers and their daughters should rightly be the focal point of the film but is too often abandoned for the 'love triangle' that begins to develop among the adults."

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Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says it's "a long, odd mix that ultimately fails to satisfy. [Brooks'] work offers moments of laughter and real insight, but not enough of either. Those messages about the power of and need for selflessness in families aren't enough … to transform a family drama into a family film—or to overcome the mostly tedious journey required to receive them."

But Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Despite its flaws, Spanglish … sends an important message about marriage. What the film tells us is that despite seemingly insurmountable hurdles, we do not have to give in to adultery. It's almost as if Brooks is trying to say that, even though Flor and John fall 'in love,' their relationship would never work. For that to happen, they would have to destroy an entire family. And while that is done every day, all over America, there are few who would say that it works, or that anyone lives happily ever after."

Elisabeth Leitch (Hollywood Jesus) says, "It shows the many ways the dominant culture in which we live can determine our sense of value. It reveals that those values need not be our only choices. And it points out the reality that, in the end, we all have the ability to choose what we let define us and decide what really matters."

from Film Forum, 01/06/05

Kevin Miller (Relevant) says, "In the wrong hands, such a story could easily become the stuff of TV melodrama: quickly digested and then just as quickly forgotten. But in Brooks' hands, this plot becomes merely a platform from which to explore all sorts of important issues, such as race, parenting, infidelity and success."

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) rave, "The beauty of Spanglish is that it molds together a light-hearted comedy with a theme of great depth. Instead of appealing to 'getting our personal needs fulfilled,' it shows a wisdom that transcends the immediate need for comfort with a long term foundation based upon values that will stand the test of time."

Related Elsewhere:

A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.

Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for some sexual content and brief language)
Directed By
James L. Brooks
Run Time
2 hours 11 minutes
Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, Paz Vega
Theatre Release
December 17, 2004 by Columbia Pictures
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