When James L. Brooks makes a movie -- which isn't often -- Oscar balloters tend to pay attention. His 1983 feature debut, ''Terms of Endearment,'' won five golden guys; 1997's ''As Good as It Gets'' nabbed two. So what's the handicapping like for ''Spanglish''? Right now, the self-doubting filmmaker sounds like he's got no idea. He wrapped shooting in May, and asked to sum up the movie, he says, ''If I could do that, we would have had a trailer out already. I think I've never juggled so many characters.''
Adam Sandler plays John Clasky, a successful chef who becomes unhappily super-successful when his restaurant lands a four-star rating (a plotline Brooks helped authenticate by hanging out with celeb cook Thomas Keller). Meantime, the highly neurotic Mrs. Clasky (Téa Leoni) hires a beautiful, single-mom Latina housekeeper named Flor (Paz Vega, a Spanish film star making her English-language debut). Sparks fly between the husband and the help, and a cataclysmic domestic devolution begins. Says Brooks: ''I think at its core, it's a romantic comedy. It has romance in it, and we're trying to be funny. At a certain point, you don't know how it's going to end. You can't figure out how it possibly could end. And that's because I didn't know, but I just kept on pursuing it.''
Brooks initially hired Anne Bancroft to play Leoni's mother, a sharp-tongued alcoholic who used to be a jazz singer. But four weeks into shooting, Bancroft had to undergo minor surgery for an undisclosed problem. She couldn't return to work in a timely fashion, so Cloris Leachman -- an old Brooks pal from his days running ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show'' -- stepped in as a replacement (and in doing so, says Brooks, she asked, ''Why didn't you just hire me in the first place?''). Says Leoni: ''The whole dynamic was changed. I had to figure out who I was all over again.''
WHAT'S AT STAKE Sandler's chance to build on the prestige-project cred he first aimed for with ''Punch-Drunk Love.''