It is such a pleasure to step into a James L. Brooks movie. From Terms of Endearment to Broadcast News to As Good As It Gets, Brooks hooks his audience, enveloping them in his characters' complex lives. In Spanglish, he once again delivers flesh-and-blood characters with minds, unexpected dialogue, and a lovely, emotional payoff.

Starting from his work on the "Mary Tyler Moore" show, Brooks has shown a genius for finding humor in strong, smart, quirky women. He knows how to cast, and he knows how to draw out remarkable performances. Téa Leoni gives a breakout one as Deb, a driven, newly unemployed, reluctant stay-at-home mom who is suffering an early midlife crisis. If she were any higher-strung, she would explode. Deb has it all: a loving husband, a boy and a girl, wealth, beauty-and enough self-contempt to destroy herself and everyone around her. Leoni risks alienating the audience with her alternately hostile and hysterical portrayal, but that is why she is so good. When Deb learns her husband's California restaurant has earned four stars, she bounds up the stairs in her track suit, tackles him onto the bed and ravishes him. After the loudest orgasm since the deli scene in When Harry Met Sally, Leoni scrunches her beautiful face into an ugly mask and bursts into tears. Adam Sandler, as her chef husband, John Clasky, assures her that she was having a good time. He, in a twist on sexual role-playing, seems to have been the uninvolved observer, muttering, "You don't even need me, do you?" at his obliviously enthralled wife. Leoni keeps Deb from being a caricature by showing her vulnerability, and her occasional flashes of insight.

It's hard to share the spotlight with Leoni, but Paz Vega actually steals it as Flor (roll the "r"), the drop-dead-gorgeous Mexican immigrant who joins the Clasky family as housekeeper. Though a star in Spain (she was in Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her), this is Vega's first American production. The camera loves her, as it loves brunette beauties like Penelope Cruz and Catherine Zeta-Jones, whom she resembles. Her character's goodness seems to shine through her large brown eyes, lightly freckled skin, dimpled chin and generous mouth. She actually learned English during the production, like her character. Since she primarily speaks Spanish throughout the movie (there are no subtitles), much of her acting is reacting, and her face and posture are perfectly fluent.

Spanglish begins in Mexico, where Flor discovers her husband is never coming back and she must raise her six-year-old daughter alone. Actually, the film really begins in the Princeton admissions office, where snippets of application essays are heard in voice-over. The essay that doesn't get tossed is Flor's daughter's. Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) cites her mother, Flor, as her hero, "no question," and proceeds to tell the story of their journey from Mexico to the barrio of Los Angeles to the Clasky household. As in all of Brooks' films, this is a story of relationships: Flor and her intelligent, pretty daughter; Deb and John and their troubled marriage; the Claskys' kind, overweight daughter, Bernice (Sarah Steele), and her demanding mother; Deb and her genially drunk mother with a past, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), and finally, Flor and John. Their romance is understated, wittily written and played, and satisfyingly unpredictable.

Sandler brings a subtle, sympathetic edge to John. He's funny at times, but he's confused and hurting, devoted to Deb but torn by the chaos she's causing at home. Deb is especially hard on her daughter, buying her a "present" of clothes one size too small to encourage her to lose weight. Sandler is convincing in the kitchen, cooking, commanding and suffering success, and in the home as a devoted father. He's so un-macho, Flor is initially horrified. "He seemed to have the emotions of a Mexican woman," she reflects.
Brooks takes his details seriously, conferring with chef Thomas Keller to get the restaurant scenes right, and consulting Christy Haubegger, founder of Latina magazine, to be true to Flor's Mexican culture. Flor might be too good to be true, a loving, noble, unmaterialistic, spectacular-looking young woman who lives for her daughter, but she is a wonderful character. And the movie skillfully explores the immigrant experience and the challenges of raising a Mexican-American child in an alien culture. Ultimately, Flor is fighting to maintain her integrity, to offer her child a better life, but not to seem less in her educated daughter's eyes. When she and Cristina join the Claskys in Malibu, and Deb takes Cristina under her wing, Spanglish comes to a head. As Cristina says in voice-over, for she is both our narrator and her mother's translator, masters and servants share the same drama. Spanglish confronts issues of class, race and sex with candor and no easy answers. Like Sideways, it's a vacation into other people's lives. What a present for the holidays!