''Spanglish," the new James L. Brooks movie, is centered on a laid-off Los Angeles wife and mother named Deborah Clasky (Ta Leoni), and Flor (Paz Vega), the Mexican single mom she hires to be her housekeeper. Neither woman is perfect, but both strive to be, and the movie thrives on the antagonism among the two of them and Deborah's husband, John (Adam Sandler).
Brooks is a poet, a realist, and a wizard when it comes to creating characters who could pass for real people. Here he has reconsidered cultural melodramas such as ''Stella Dallas" and ''Imitation of Life" in an age of ''Wife Swap." What he's come up with is one of the most humane works ever made about the lives of working mothers.
The movie is also more than that. Brooks wonders how an immigrant and her American daughter can maintain dual identities without the identities dueling. It's about the invisible scars a mom can leave on a vulnerable kid. It's about class, race, success, parenting, ambition, pride, disappointment -- oh, I give up! This movie is about life. But not with a capital ''l."
Brooks weaves his concerns and ideas in his characters, without their becoming ciphers or symbols, and without insisting on kempt narrative conclusions. Characters are, however, idealizations for him: Deborah is the perfect model of a career woman, but in Brooks's script and in Leoni's fearless performance, you also see how big, complicated, and surprising that model can be. Deborah is willfully oblivious, insensitive, and casually racist in the way that some privileged liberals can be. But she's always risking vulnerability, too.
From his days as a writer and creator of ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and ''Rhoda," Brooks has never been afraid of headstrong, high-strung women. The movies he's built around them --''Terms of Endearment," ''Broadcast News," ''As Good as It Gets" -- chip away the Teflon to reveal the aching people beneath.
These are all characters Brooks wrote after the height of the feminist movement, but Deborah is the first of his creations to evoke a generation of women who might've run out of workplace battles and found themselves ruling their homes like dictators, the way we're led to believe Hillary Clinton or Martha Stewart might. Parity now seems quaint. Deborah, instead, is a slave to perfection: physical, domestic, sexual. Passive-aggressively, she pushes her chubby young daughter, Bernie (Sarah Steele), to lose weight by buying her new clothes that are too small. Deborah actually prefers Flor's skinnier, prettier 12-year-old daughter, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce).
Temporarily jobless, Deborah is without an identity. She runs her home like a small business, bulldozing John (Adam Sandler), her sensitive chef husband, her two kids, and her chronically drunk mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), into seeing the world her way.
When John finds himself drawn to Flor, it's only partially because she's beautiful; he also doesn't hear his wife's barking. But Brooks is shrewd in how he allows us to glean how alike the two women are. Flor, for one thing, is just as turned off by John's emoting. She thinks he's more like ''a Mexican woman."
Sandler is at his best when he's matched with a woman who challenges him into submission, which Leoni more than does. We see him do something we normally don't: listen -- and he's very good at it.
Brooks tells ''Spanglish" from Cristina's point of view -- or rather, he tells it from the point-of-view of the essay she's included in her application to Princeton, which is all about her mother. This is a bold move for Brooks, who's a 60-something Jew, to open his movie in the voice of a 17-year-old Chicana, and I'm not sure it always works: It might be too much like something the essayist Richard Rodriguez would try. But Brooks's commitment to identity politics never feels political, and it's a sign of his confidence that you find yourself lost in the characters he's building.
The essay (read by Aimee Garcia) explains that Flor and Cristina left Mexico for the barrios of Southern California, where for years Flor works odd jobs, never leaves her neighborhood, and refuses to learn English. The sight of a boy's hands on her daughter's derriere makes Flor realize she needs to be home at night and lands her at the Claskys, where Flor brings her cousin to translate, and Evelyn and Bernie interpret Deborah for Flor. Once Deborah conscripts Flor and Cristina into moving to the Claskys' summerhouse, the movie flexes its melodramatic muscles without turning to sap.
Deborah absconds with Cristina for a day of fun, leaving her own daughter at home and striking panic, then outrage, in Flor. And you get the sense from Vega's patient, reactive performance that Deborah's lack of consideration leaves a bruise on this woman. Once Cristina shows up, it's evident that fragile but loving Bernie will get even shorter shrift from Deborah. (Steele is emotionally boundless without being as showy as Bruce, and she's sweet and heartbreaking.)
Part of the movie's brilliance is the way it shows how Deborah's questionable mothering drives Flor crazy with determination not to lose her daughter. But the frippery of the Claskys' bourgeois life is too strong for Cristina to resist. On the car ride home from their afternoon of girl power, Cristina tells Deborah ''You're the nicest white woman I've ever met," turning a century of Hollywood racial condescension sideways. The girl's not passing for white, she's passing for well off, which I guess you could equate with a sort of cultural whiteness.
Occasionally, mostly in the early going, ''Spanglish" feels like it might be a tonal disaster. There's too much fidgeting, gawking, and stuttering. From a directing standpoint, it lacks the crisp social and occupational rhythms of ''Broadcast News," the finest comedy ever about work as a window into people's souls. ''Spanglish" is always percolating, but its timing is sometimes off.
I felt the same way about ''As Good as It Gets," but a lot more so. Shtick had replaced the subtlety in Brooks's filmmaking, and the conversations sounded speechy, sometimes preachy. But unlike most American directors, Brooks really rewards an audience's perception. And in ''Spanglish," the characters are always in dialogue with each other and with the larger, evolving world we live in, transcending easy demographics. I'm not an uptight white woman or a struggling Mexican single mom. I'm neither 12 nor as venerable as the fearsome Leachman. But I am human, and with Brooks, that's really all anyone needs to be.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.