Set in Los Angeles, a city where nearly half the population is Hispanic, James L. Brooks' pleasing dramedy Spanglish grapples with meaty issues that face many people who cross national borders, including the difficulties of finding work, overcoming the language barrier, and assimilating to a new culture. But really, it's about a dilemma specific to rich Hollywood types: What to do about the help? When a full-time housekeeper/nanny enters the picture, it becomes impossible for employer or employee to think about the arrangement as merely a job, because their lives become entangled in ways that go beyond business. Consequently, the master-servant dynamic can grow increasingly awkward and unsustainable, since there's more at stake for everyone than merely keeping the house in order. Brooks is known for genteel, intelligent entertainments like Broadcast News, Terms Of Endearment, and As Good As It Gets, and he isn't the man for seething ethnic tension, but he handles these issues with characteristic sensitivity and good humor.
In a regrettable framing device, the story is narrated as a personal essay for admission to Princeton, written by the grown daughter of an illegal Mexican immigrant. Any Ivy League school worth its blazers would send back a rejection letter, if only because the applicant strayed so far off topic, but the essay swiftly establishes the identity issues that come into play when the girl's mother, played by the winning Paz Vega (Sex & Lucía), accepts a job as all-purpose help for a dysfunctional upper-class family. Cast shrewdly against type, Adam Sandler stars as the ineffectual head of the household, a four-star chef whose marriage to high-strung, intensely neurotic Téa Leoni falls apart while his daughter (Sarah Steele) deals with self-esteem problems and his mother-in-law (Cloris Leachman) drinks super-size glasses of wine. Having spent her first six years in America within an insular Mexican community, Vega doesn't speak a word of English, which becomes an immediate liability when she's thrown into the chaos of Sandler's relatives, especially once her precocious daughter (Shelbie Bruce) becomes part of the extended family.
With its flat, uninspired staging, limited settings, and lovably quirky cast, Spanglish can't hide Brooks' television roots, but perhaps it's time to stop using TV as a pejorative term, particularly since Brooks (producer of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and The Simpsons) is such a master of the medium. Even so, the prospect of having Leoni as a recurring character would be cause for cancellation: Brooks' weakness for scenes that overdo neuroses (see also: Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets and the otherwise wonderful Holly Hunter in Broadcast News) turns her into a raving, insufferable shrew and easy foil. But Vega radiates effortless strength and charm in her first Hollywood role, and Sandler proves to be a gratifyingly unpredictable leading man, self-effacing one moment and hilariously emphatic the other. Though Brooks has a broad, crowd-pleasing sensibility, he knows how to appeal to the masses without insulting anyone's intelligence, and that's a rare gift these days.