by Ed Symkus

It's a bad title, it has a misleading poster, and a preview trailer that seems to be about some other movie. But this dramatic comedy about culture shock, marriage difficulties, mother-daughter relationships, nouvelle cuisine, and New Age hooey is actually a pleasant surprise. It's warm and accessible, is filled with charmingly real characters who speak believable dialogue -- some of it in Spanish -- and it's an ideal crossover film, for audiences young and old, white and Hispanic. If it doesn't catch on, someone should fire the marketing department. The film is being cheated by it.

Fair warning, though: If you're a fan of goofy Adam Sandler films such as Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy, this might not be for you. The same goes for those of you -- the very few of you -- who enjoyed his "serious" turn in Punch Drunk Love. Sandler's role, and his approach to it, in this one is closest to the sweet guy he played in The Wedding Singer.

Here he's John Clasky, a New York chef who has moved his family to the West Coast to try to make it on his own as a chef and restaurateur. He has what at first seems to be an ideal family life. Oh, his wife, Deb (Tea Leoni), might be a little neurotic -- deeply into physical fitness, a fast-talking blabber, always going for political correctness, never achieving it, rather annoying. But their kids are great. Well, Georgie (Ian Hyland) is a little shy. And Bernie (Sarah Steele, and she is a scene stealer), is kind of chunky, but is happy enough till Mom, who's read too many motivational books, thoughtlessly makes her self-conscious about it. And except for the fact that John's live-in mother-in-law, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman, on her way to an Oscar nomination) is an alcoholic ex-jazz singer who likes doing duets of sad torch songs with her grandkids, she's fun to have around.

But the film is as much about a different family -- Flora (Paz Vega, from Sex and Lucia) and her young daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) -- who, after Dad split on them in Mexico, sneaked across the border to America, eventually landing in L.A. to start a new life. Flora doesn't speak any English, although Cristina is fluent. Still, she lands a job as housekeeper for the Claskys, and even with that language barrier, she notices early on that Deb is nuts, that John is calm, and that this is not the happiest of households.

Before too much time goes by, the mother-daughter relationship business jumps front and center. Flora and Cristina are tight, Deb and Bernie are often at odds -- to heartbreaking effect - and Deb and Evelyn are cordial to each other, but have a checkered past, and Deb and Cristina ... well, they're not related, but the pushy, bull-headed, insensitive Deb seems to think it's OK to "borrow" Cristina from the confused Flora, which triggers some hot-blooded friction between the two.

That, along with the possibility of marital strife, for a variety of reasons, and John's conflicting thoughts about success at work coming too fast and too easy, make up the film's serious, slightly sad side. But there's plenty of bright comedy to counterbalance that. Leachman is subtly hilarious in her character's appreciation of large martinis and oversized glasses of white wine. A sex scene between Leoni and Sandler is one of the funniest and oddest to come down the tracks in years. Before the language barrier problem is ironed out, there's a scene in which John speaks English, Flora speaks Spanish, and Cristina gets caught in the middle, feverishly translating between them. It's a terrific piece of writing, acting, and directing.

The film takes an unusual dramatic turn near the end, though plenty of hints have been dropped that it would go this way, usually in quickly scribbled notes left in the kitchen. But it's not at all slapped on. It's a mood change that fits the circumstances quite well.

While Sandler is certainly the star of the film, and while he's adept at acting calm and level-headed -- pretty much in opposition to the loony, over-excitable character portrayed by Leoni -- he meets his match in the quiet, earthy beauty emanating from Vega's Flora. She turns out to be someone refreshingly different from his problematic wife.

The way Spanglish resolves Sandler's predicament is one of the chief virtues of this winning film.

Publication date: 12/16/04

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