Just outside the big, comfy Gracie Films office of James L. Brooks in Los Angeles, a Life in Hell comic strip by Matt Groening hangs on the wall. It's partly a trophy, a testament to Brooks' long partnership with Groening as an executive producer and leading story-meeting guru on The Simpsons. But it's also a caution. The unframed piece of original artwork sports the title ''The Los Angeles Way of Death.'' It has nine panels starring one of Groening's trademark buck-toothed, long-eared, humanoid rabbits. The poor creature meets various ends beneath such headings as ''Cop'' (a bullet through the head), ''Air'' (a blanket of thick smog), and ''Drugs'' (a syringe next to the bed). And in the last two identically drawn panels, the scariest twin perils of them all: ''Failure.'' ''Success.''Brooks laughs about it, but he's generally a fearful guy, tortured by spectres of all sorts. ''I have very dark days,'' he smiles. Years back, his front teeth used to stick out (he's since had them fixed), and in old pictures he can sometimes look like a Groening bunny himself. Success? At 67, he's tasted it in jumbo portions. A corner of his office teems with Emmy awards, evidence of his accomplished four-decade career in TV. (He's received 41 Emmy nods, 38 of them as cocreator and/or exec producer of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, The Tracey Ullman Show, and The Simpsons, and has accumulated a shelf-cluttering 18 statuettes.) Clustered in among the Emmys are multiple Oscars, the fruits of two fertile decades making movies. Besides lending a hand producing or exec-producing comedies like Say Anything..., The War of the Roses, and Jerry Maguire, Brooks was the director, writer, and producer of 1983's Terms of Endearment, 1987's Broadcast News, and 1997's As Good as It Gets (cowritten with Mark Andrus). Failure? Brooks has had a few nibbles of that, too, with some fizzled TV shows (What About Joan), and, most resoundingly, with 1994's notorious demusicalized feature, I'll Do Anything a debacle he set out to revisit with a fresh documentary circa 1998, but no one could untangle the music rights to Prince's deleted songs.
On this early October Friday, Brooks has roughly six weeks of editing to go on Spanglish, his first feature film in seven years. Ask him when he wrapped shooting and he gets a fidgety look. ''I don't know absolutely,'' he says. ''One of the ways I function is in denial.'' Turns out the six-month shoot ended in early June not the most comfortable of stop dates for a picture opening on Dec. 17, given Brooks' broody editorial ways and his penchant for shooting huge amounts of film, sometimes as many as 15 to 25 takes. He says he has ''three different endings'' (and he wound up doing three days of additional shooting at the end of October).
So why has this movie been so hard to nail? That's easy: It's a complicated culture-clash story with lots of characters. Deep breath; here we go: Meet Flor (Spanish star Paz Vega, making her English-language debut), a single-mother Mexican émigré to L.A. She goes to work as a housekeeper for a well-off family, the Claskys, to help support her 12-year-old daughter, Cristina (newcomer Shelbie Bruce). The daughter narrates the movie, so ostensibly, it's her take on the wages of domestic-help imperialism. But Spanglish is also a web of mother-daughter entanglements. Flor's little girl hashes out assimilation issues with her. And Flor's boss, Debbie Clasky (Téa Leoni, who describes her character as ''a dame slash bitch''), takes some ferocious swipes at her own mother, alcoholic Evelyn (Cloris Leachman, who stepped into the role after Anne Bancroft fell ill four weeks into shooting no worries, Bancroft recuperated).