James L. Brooks serves up too much of a good thing in Spanglish.

All You Can Eat 

James L. Brooks serves up too much of a good thing in Spanglish.

In Spanglish, which is less a story than a snapshot of a crumbling marriage populated by sitcom characters, Adam Sandler plays John Clasky, an average man with an above-average life. With his burgeoning double chin always covered in a slight shadow of stubble, he's a celebrated chef who runs a successful restaurant in Beverly Hills and has a beautiful wife named Deborah (Téa Leoni) hellbent on keeping the body of a 20-year-old. He's also the father of two wise-beyond-their-years children named George (Ian Hyland) and Bernice (Sarah Steele), and he lives in a modestly palatial Westwood home in which there's room enough to stash his alcoholic mother-in-law, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), without much bother.

But beneath the perfect surface, trouble roils: Deborah's body may be in great shape, but it's all that remains from John and Deborah's early days as a married couple. She has no time for John and, ultimately, no need for him, either, except as provider for a pampered lifestyle. She even seems to loathe her children. Why John and Deborah are married at all remains a mystery.

Into this cauldron of spite and ennui enters Flor (Paz Vega), the mother Bernice always wanted and the wife John craves. She's everything Deborah isn't -- decent, compassionate, loving -- and she has what Deborah wants more than anything: a beautiful 12-year-old daughter Cristine (Shelby Bruce) she can take shopping for fab outfits. Flor is gorgeous, too, as Deborah points out when interviewing her to be the Claskys' housekeeper, only she doesn't mean it as a compliment. "It's more of an accusation," says Evelyn, mournfully eyeing the martini glass she's emptied in the middle of the afternoon. In this house full of envy and malevolence and bickering, it is all John can do to keep from losing his temper, his mind and what's left of his soul.

In this role, Sandler is perfect. John, like Sandler's Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love or even Robbie Hart in The Wedding Singer, is, on the outside, a sweet man who would hurt no one and help anyone. But when pushed or pulled in the wrong direction by the wrong set of hands, John will explode. He's the kind of man who fears four-star reviews from The New York Times' food critic because of the pressure such praise would bring.

Writer-director James L. Brooks, a maker of solid, decent movies (Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets) that occasionally play like long sitcom pilots with too much heart for their own good, adores John and wants the best for him, which is why he puts Flor on the chef's plate. He makes the choice rather clear. Brooks so vilifies Deborah that she's not even a character -- which is why Spanglish never quite works, despite its wonderful performances.

Spanglish is just good enough that you might wish it were better. There are moments here that will break your heart, that feel as real as anything can when written in transcribed sitcomese. But Brooks can't bother with a tissue when he knows a sponge will do even better, so on and on he goes, until we're no longer moved but just a little tired.

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