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The Films of James L. Brooks

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Spanglish (December 13/04)

Viewers who missed Adam Sandler's astounding work in Punch-Drunk Love will probably be surprised by his level of ability in Spanglish, but the truly shocking thing is just how different Barry Egan (Punch-Drunk Love's protagonist) is from Spanglish's John Clasky. On the surface, the two characters have a lot in common - primarily a pathological streak of niceness - though it quickly becomes evident that Sandler is doing something entirely different here. The film, which casts the actor as John Clasky, a famous chef who must contend with a variety of elements within his personal life (including the arrival of a spunky housekeeper named Flor, played by Paz Vega), should effectively cement Sandler's status as more than just a comedic performer (let's hope he never entirely abandons that aspect of his career). Brooks' films often focus more on character development than plot, something that often works extremely well thanks to an emphasis on people that are engaging and intriguing (think Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets or Albert Brooks in Broadcast News). But that's ultimately not the case here, as Flor never entirely becomes the engaging figure that Brooks clearly wants her to be. Exacerbating matters is the fact that John and his wife, Deborah (Tea Leoni) - and even their kids - offer far more promise than Flor, making it impossible not to wish that Brooks would've just focused exclusively on the Claskys. And while Vega is very good in the role (despite being hindered by an accent that's occasionally difficult to decipher), the character is generally overshadowed by virtually everyone around her. As a result, Spanglish is Brooks' most uneven film to date - veering wildly between sequences that are just as effective as anything he's done before to those that feel woefully out of place. In the former category are the all-too-rare moments between John and his plump daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele). Their chemistry feels genuine, and Steele does an amazing job of capturing the sort of angst that goes with being an overweight pre-teen (Spanglish marks the actress' debut, incredibly enough). The most prominent casualty of the film's focus on Flor is Leoni, who just isn't able to turn Deborah into a terribly sympathetic character. But more than that, it's difficult to accept the fact that laid-back John would remain married to high-strung Deborah - and since Leoni receives relatively little screentime, the character essentially comes off as a shrill malcontent. Spanglish is far from mediocre, but it's hard not to expect more from Brooks - particularly considering how much time he takes in between films.

out of

How Do You Know (December 15/10)

James L. Brooks' first film since 2004's Spanglish, How Do You Know details the love triangle that ensues after a former athlete (Reese Witherspoon's Lisa) moves in with a professional baseball player (Owen Wilson's Matty) - only to subsequently discover that she's falling for a beleagured businessman (Paul Rudd's George). There's little doubt that How Do You Know fares best in its opening hour, as writer/director Brooks does a superb job of establishing the various characters and juggling their respective storylines (ie George's ongoing problems at work, Lisa's disappointment at being cut from her sports team, etc, etc). The affable atmosphere is heightened by the uniformly strong work from the film's three stars, with Witherspoon's incredibly likeable work anchoring the proceedings on an all-too-regular consistent basis. (Likewise, Rudd and Wilson are far more appealing here than they've otherwise been as of late, while Jack Nicholson, cast as George's cranky father, makes the most of his lamentably little screen time.) It's only as the film enters its noticeably flabby midsection that one's interest begins to wane, with the turning point an overlong sequence in which Lisa and Matty get drunk together and commiserate over their respective problems. The scene effectively stops the proceedings dead in its tracks and there's subsequently never a point wherein Brooks is able to get things wholeheartedly going again, which ultimately ensures that the movie feels like a rough cut in desperate need of a few more passes through the edit bay. And although the film does boast a few standout interludes in its second half - ie a friend of Matty receives a marriage proposal almost immediately after delivering her baby - How Do You Know ultimately establishes itself as a watchable yet disappointing work from a filmmaker whose best days are clearly behind him.

out of

© David Nusair