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Muy Awful

Spanglish is the worst movie of 2004

Josh Bell

I have sat through many bad movies as a film critic. I've endured unfunny comedies, laughable horror movies, pretentious art films, and Hilary Duff vehicles. It's part of the job. But 20 minutes into Spanglish, James L. Brooks' reprehensible comedy-drama, I couldn't take it anymore. I would have welcomed Hilary Duff, an illogical serial killer, an arty rumination on death or a series of fart jokes—anything to save me from this vile, insulting, condescending, unbearable film; the worst movie I have seen this year.


Somehow I made it through all two hours of it, though I think a little piece of my soul might still be in the theater. The commercials for Spanglish, which already made me cringe, don't do justice to its sheer awfulness. You think you're getting a "heartwarming," tear-jerking film about the power of love across cultural boundaries. What you're actually getting is the biggest white-guilt film of all time.


Adam Sandler stars as rich white guy John Clasky, an LA chef with his own restaurant who is married to rich, white housewife Deborah (Téa Leoni), the daughter of a retired jazz singer (Cloris Leachman), and has two children, the slightly plump Bernice (Sarah Steele) and the perpetually ignored Georgie (Ian Hyland). The family hires beautiful Mexican immigrant Flor (Paz Vega, a Penelope Cruz ringer) as their housekeeper. Flor speaks no English, but connects with the kind John through a shared love for his children and Flor's daughter, precocious Christina.


When the Claskys rent a summer beach house, Flor and Christina move in with them, and Christina is exposed to luxuries she's never had. There are class conflicts, there are secret romantic longings, there are emotional breakthroughs and there is crying. Oh Lord, is there crying. It was right around the 20-minute mark, when I truly wondered if I would actually live to see the end of this film, that the crying began. From then on, some character or another had a good cry every 15 minutes or so, right until the end, when pretty much everyone cried right through the credits, after which I may have shed a tear or two of joy that I was released from the theater.


It's not simply that Spanglish is a bad movie. If it were just that, it would be hard to get that worked up about it. There are plenty of bad movies with sloppy sentimentality and plenty of bad movies starring Adam Sandler—some are both at once. But Spanglish is the worst kind of bad movie: a bad movie that thinks it's a good movie, no, a great movie, an important movie, a movie with a strong, positive message about life and society.


That message is: We're sorry.


Never has a film featured so many characters spending so much time apologizing to one another. It's a feature-length apology, the desperate attempt of a rich Hollywood white guy to alleviate his guilt about the exploitation of immigrants. It's an apology for wealth, for the gap between rich and poor, for the way illegal immigrants are treated, for white guys lusting after well-proportioned Latinas, for private education, for cultural imperialism, for the very existence of Adam Sandler (perhaps that last one is just my fervent hope).


Even worse, it's a completely disingenuous apology that feels bad about exploiting hot Latinas even as it makes its hot Latina lead fall in love with the schlubby rich white guy. It's a poorly acted apology, with Sandler adrift without one of his typical angry man-child characters to play, and Leoni, in a terribly written role as a complete harridan who is somehow meant to be sympathetic, screeching her way into some sort of misguided-Oscar-bid hall of fame. Of the leads, only Vega comes off well, and that might be because she spends most of the movie speaking a foreign language.


Brooks is not an incompetent filmmaker; he's got a career of solid melodramas like Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets behind him. And it isn't impossible for a white man to make a moving, effective film about a Latina immigrant—look no further than Joshua Marston's Maria Full of Grace. But Spanglish does nothing more than prove how out of touch with reality Brooks and his collaborators are; you could show it to terrorists to incite their hatred of America, that's how stupidly misguided it is. For the safety of guilty rich white guys everywhere, let's hope it's the resounding failure it so deserves to be.

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