Talk about trading down: Adam Sandler now stands in for Gary Cooper, Winona Ryder for Jean Arthur, screenwriter Tim Herlihy (The Waterboy, Billy Madison) for Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night, Meet John Doe) and director Steven Brill (Little Nicky) for the immortal Frank Capra. The mind reels at the possibilities hinted at by Mr. Deeds, a mawkish, ill-conceived remake of Capra’s 1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which garnered Capra his second best-director Academy Award. What’s next? Rob Schneider, Dana Carvey and Sarah Michelle Gellar in The Philadelphia Story?
Sandler has parlayed a single character — the pissed-off clown with the heart of gold-plate — into a multimillion-dollar franchise. He has no range — the ex-Saturday Night Live cast member is as flexible as concrete — but that’s why his audience loves him. Sandler’s production company, Happy Madison, regularly cranks out these dim, syrupy turds for studios (in this case, AOL Time Warner-owned New Line and Columbia) eager to rent his demographic — the stunted frat boy and his hostage-date.
Mr. Deeds, despite its pedigree (Riskin based his screenplay on Clarence Budington Kelland’s Saturday Evening Post short story “Opera Hat”), is less a remake than a riff on Sandler’s previous films (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy). Even so, until its finale, during which Deeds takes down oily baddie Peter Gallagher, it hews closely to the original, lacking only its style, wit, charm and class.
That Sandler would want to play Longfellow Deeds — a small-town writer of greeting cards and owner of his own small business who inherits billions (in the original, it was millions) after the death of a distant uncle — was perhaps inevitable. It’s the quintessential Sandler role: the good guy who wants to do the right thing, surrounded by those who’d seek to use, abuse and betray him. (Early on, in Deeds’ quaint New Hampshire hometown, we see him doing myriad good deeds, including carrying an elderly black man across the street; that his idea of the perfect woman is a damsel in distress comes back to haunt him.) He’s the audience’s surrogate, afforded the opportunity to punch out those who would patronize him while still winning the girl and walking away with a pocketful of cash. He’s the regular guy living the good life, a schmuck whose dreams have become tangible, the “adultolescent” who loves Beetle Bailey and has no idea what The New Yorker is. His audience wants to hang with him, wants to be like him, wants to be him. The dude throws a wicked party; he’s even invited John McEnroe for a night of drunken debauchery, which culminates with the pair tossing eggs at passing cars.
But in the end, Sandler’s revelries are no fun at all. Mr. Deeds has no momentum, no spark, not even the cheap thrills of watching a prankster desecrate a masterpiece. In their attempt to update the original and its theme of working class-versus-ruling class, Herlihy and Brill have made a sloppy, dispirited copy. Its jokes have no resonance (during the Depression, Cooper gave his fortune to broke farmers; here, Sandler sends his $40 billion to the United Negro College Fund in what amounts to a tossed-off gag), and its actors display no sparkle. Ryder is astonishingly awful playing the cynically manipulative TV reporter who betrays Deeds, only to fall in love with him. Ryder, whose every line falls flat and every look suggests mortification, didn’t look this ashamed in court. Only John Turturro, as Deeds’ Spanish butler with a foot fetish, generates energy and earns laughs. He belongs in his own picture, not playing second fiddle to an instrument without strings.