With Spanglish, James Brooks proves again that American TV is alive and well in Hollywood–on the big-screen. Narratively messy and technically shapeless, the new serio-comedy comes across as a pilot for a big crowd-pleasing TV series. Next to the disastrous I'll Do Anything, Spanglish is Brooks' worst film.

In many ways, though, Spanglish is a logical follow-up to Brooks' 1997 smash hit, As Good As It Gets, in which he combined the talents of a big movie star like Jack Nicholson with a big TV star like Helen Hunt, both winning Oscars for their roles. Now, instead of TV stars, Brooks has populated his sprawling saga with movie stars, but he has given them such broad roles to play that they would easily fit into the most soapish sitcom.

The movie is no doubt well intentioned. There's certainly room for a comedy (or drama) set in L.A. about cultural collision, but it needs to be sharper, more in tune with the zeitgeist. At its good moments, Spanglish is a movie of the 1990s; at its bad ones, a product of the 1980s.

Brooks could be commended for other reasons. Just as his 1983 Oscar-winner Terms of Endearment offered two strong leads for women, Spanglish provides two meaty roles for Tea Leoni (who's hysterical and terrible) and Paz Vega, the charming and radiant Spanish actress, who makes a most impressive American debut.

The problem with Brooks is that at heart he's a sentimentalist. This was evident in his biggest success, Terms of Endearment, which offered a portrait of a young mom dying of cancer. In its sentimental tone and traditional view of women, Terms of Endearment was old-fashioned, but it also was well directed and acted. Moreover, audiences enjoyed the love-hate relationship between a possessive mother (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter (Debra Winger), and the amusing sexual encounters between MacLaine's middle-aged widow and her boozy ex-astronaut neighbor (Jack Nicholson). The film's candid view of middle-aged sexuality was fresh and refreshing.

Spanglish is only occasionally sharply observed and only sporadically funny, despite honorable intent to make a timely picture about cultural pluralism, and the goal to provide a fresher, more honest look at such life-altering commitments as marriage, parenting, and family.

Spanglish is a three-generational ensemble piece with dozen characters that belong to different age cohorts, ethnic groups, social classes, and even nationalities. In the spirit of the upcoming holidays, instead of cultural conflict, Brooks is preaching for harmony and co-existence between white Americans and Latinos, mothers, daughters, and granddaughters, husband and wives, rich women and their poor housekeepers.

In other words, there's enough material in Spanglish for a whole TV season, but not enough solid or funny stuff for one good picture.

Literally speaking, Spanglish is a hybrid of Spanish and English, a dialect spoken by nearly 40 million Latinos living in the U.S. But Brooks uses it as a metaphor as well, observing what happens to the intermingling of disparate cultures when their members end up living together under the same roof. The movie is about where the two cultures meet–and where they can never meet.

As far as Flor and Deborah are concerned, the culture clash is deep and vivid. Flor believes in traditional continuity. For her, the ultimate definition of personal fulfillment is that day her daughter Cristina will declare with pride and purpose: I am my mother's daughter. In contrast, Deborah lives in fear of becoming like her mother, who was a wildly irresponsible parent during her formative years, but has now become maddeningly and alarmingly a loving and loveable grandmother.

The story begins when Flor, a native of Mexico, is left with little money and no options as a single parent to her six year-old-daughter Cristina. Guilty for marrying a man who wasn't a proper parent, she has buried her needs as a woman to devote herself to her child. For her, this devotion is not a sacrifice or martyrdom, but the most natural thing. Seeking a better life, Flor flees Mexico and settles in a Latino community in L.A. She remains rooted in her familiar world and language, and removed from American culture, until she's hired as a housekeeper. The film uses a tiresome format of voice-over narration by Cristina, six years after the film's story ends, who says things like, After all her time in America, she finally enters a foreign land.

John and Deborah Clasky (Adam Sandler and Leoni) are going through a rough marital strife. John is a loving and patient father-husband as well as the chef and owner of a new restaurant. Deborah has recently lost her job at a commercial design company and is now in the throes of an identity crisis. In the past, her career had enabled her to channel her nervous energy, but without that outlet, her insecurities threaten the family's stability. Deborah is going through an early midlife-crisis (she's in her late 1930s), which is affecting everyone around her. A successful, professional woman, she's suddenly thrust into full-time motherhood.

A profound sense of inadequacy envelops Deborah, and, though she has no mean bones, her desperation is causing damage. Deborah is close to being a good mother and wife. She is almost intelligent, almost appropriate, almost understanding–but not quite. High-strung and nutty, Deborah is striving for self-worth. Her two children, Bernice and Georgie (Sarah Steele and Ian Hyland), fall victim to her idealized vision of life. As played by Leoni, Deborah is self-absorbed, dangerously insecure, and hysterically masochistic.

Deborah's mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), is painfully aware of her daughter's internal chaos and its consequences. A former moderately successful jazz singer, Evelyn lives in the house under the constant disapproval of her daughter. Despite the fact that she's a dedicated and amiable drunk, she's the only character that sees all the crises clearly.

As for Flor, she finds Deborah's well-meaning demeanor overbearing. Sheltered by her inability to speak English, Flor observes her employer's behavior from a safe distance. Privacy and dignity is the same thing for Flor. She keeps her personal life separate; she doesn't even tell the Claskys she has a daughter. Gradually and inevitably, however, Flor is drawn into the family. Trying to encourage Bernice to lose weight, Deborah buys her clothes a size too small, which causes Flor to surrender her remove and comes to Bernice's aid. She alters the clothes to fit her and in doing so loses her defense and neutrality.

Things change for all the characters, when the Claskys rent a summer beach house in Malibu that is unreachable by bus, forcing Flor and Cristina to move in. Smitten by Cristina, Deborah takes the impressionable girl under her wing. As a result, a competition for over her character and soul develops between the two women.

As Deborah's behavior becomes more inappropriate, Flor and John become each other's touchstones and mutual attraction evolves between them. For and John share in common their love for their children, and their basic motivation to please and to make everybody happy. Though separated by language (Cristina hilariously serves as interpreter between the two), Flor and John find a great deal of common ground. Brooks wants to show that an old-fashioned value like decency can be sexy.

The inherent difficulties of communication and the shortcomings of language plague every relationship. The word Spanglish is a metaphor for the collision of cultures within this particular household, but it's also a metaphor for the overall inadequacy of language. Whether or not we speak the same language, we're always interpreting one another's behavior. John and Flor have problems communicating verbally, but they show instinctual understanding and empathy for each other's feelings.

While cultural clash is the main theme, the picture also suggests the inability of people of the same culture and language to communicate. These messages are noble and uplifting. I just wish they were contained in wittier, sharper, and funnier film.