Film Reviews: Wednesday, June27, 2002

Whether it’s 1936 or 2002, Mr. Deeds plays us for suckers.\r\n


Mr. Deeds is based on Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, an Oscar-winning 1936 film directed by Frank Capra. Both movies are about a man named Longfellow Deeds who lives in a New England hamlet called Mandrake Falls and writes sappy poems for greeting cards. In both movies, Deeds inherits an unimaginable fortune from a long-lost relative and has to go to New York to take care of financial matters, where city slickers prey on the guileless guy from the sticks. Chief among his tormentors is reporter Babe Bennett, who pretends to be a fellow small-town hick in the big city and gets Deeds to fall in love with her so she can feed embarrassing personal information on him to her bosses, who turn him into an object of derision. She falls in love with him for real, though, and tries desperately to make amends for her betrayal. The 1936 movie stars Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, whereas Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder play the same roles in the version in theaters now.

A Frank Capra “classic” remade as an Adam Sandler vehicle? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Sandler likes to see himself as a regular guy who’s honest and a little naïve, and Capra’s heroes exemplify those qualities. Generally, both Capra and Sandler distrust rich people, politicians, intellectuals, and the press, though Capra’s films were made for a country mired in the Great Depression, so the act played even better in his day. The social elites make martyrs out of Capra’s heroes, who eventually triumph anyway because of their all-American goodness. Is Sandler developing a Capra-esque martyrdom complex? Given his reviews, it’d be hard to blame him. In any event, Sandler slides easily into the story of Mr. Deeds.

His movie doesn’t match up with the earlier film, though. Frank Capra’s direction is finely attuned to atmosphere, actors, and the emotional arc in Robert Riskin’s sharp screenplay, which boasts such memorable turns as Deeds’ analysis of other people’s nervous habits and the two old ladies who think everyone is “pixilated.” The remake is written by Tim Herlihy, who has written all of Sandler’s films since Billy Madison. His material is crap, not to put too fine a point upon it. The gags aren’t funny, the set pieces only slow things down, and the movie squanders a promising opportunity to update the original film’s take on the nature of being a celebrity joke. We’re supposed to laugh at 2002 Babe Bennett because she’s a terrible liar, but if she’s any kind of an undercover reporter, wouldn’t she be a terrific liar? There’s no such thing as a rewarding female role in an Adam Sandler movie, and Mr. Deeds crosses the line from casual to blatant misogyny, which puts Ryder in a bad situation. Her work here is dispiriting.

The one area where this movie improves on the original is, ironically, in Sandler’s performance. He doesn’t resort to any attention-seeking behavioral tics like he did in The Waterboy and Little Nicky; instead, he delivers a low-key, minimalist performance. OK, he seems to be sleepwalking through the movie. Still, that’s better than what Gary Cooper does in the original. Cooper was one of the great movie stars of his time, but in both Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Capra’s similar but less humorous 1941 film, Meet John Doe, he was cast against type as a sensitive, easily wounded soul, which only brought out an unattractively sullen facet of his personality. (Jimmy Stewart was a much better leading man for Capra.) Compared to Cooper, Sandler’s Deeds is much more fun to be around.

That’s a small recommendation, though. Capra’s populist shtick may have been a bunch of hooey (to borrow a phrase from his era), but he completely believed it, and his movies burn with that belief. While Sandler and Herlihy pay lip service to that idea, they don’t share it. Where Mr. Deeds Goes to Town presents its small-town characters with dignity, Mr. Deeds makes fun of them. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Comedians should have as little false piety as possible, and refusing to go along with Capra’s starry-eyed veneration of the common man is potentially a great step forward for the remake. The catch is that in this movie, as in all his other films, Sandler doesn’t include himself as fair game. (There’s one other character in the movie who doesn’t exist to be the butt of the film’s attempts at humor: Deeds’ Spanish butler, who moves silently and instantly to wherever he’s needed. John Turturro treats the role like a part in a Coen brothers’ film, and skates away with the film’s small complement of good laughs.) The only thing the filmmakers believe is that Adam Sandler is an awesome guy, and that just makes his unfunny comedies into sour affairs.

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