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 torturous, mawkish, ill-conceived remake of Capra's 1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which garnered the director his second best-director Academy Award. (This new version exists solely to prove that, yup, they don't make 'em like they used to.) What's next? Rob Schneider, Dana Carvey, and Sarah Michelle Gellar in The Philadelphia Story? David Spade as Citizen Kane? The bar has been so lowered you must now dig a tunnel to go under it.
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Sandler has parlayed a single character -- the charming doofus in over his head, the pissed-off clown with the heart of gold plate -- into a multimillion-dollar franchise. He has no range -- the ex-Saturday Night Liver is as flexible as concrete -- but that's why his audience loves him. To stray from the formula would disobey the golden rule of modern-day filmmaking, which is: Give the people what they want, even if they're sated. Sandler's production company, Happy Madison, regularly cranks out these dim, dumb, silly, and 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, the fifth-grader for whom poo-poo jokes are a little too sophisticated, the stoner with concession-stand munchies. (After Little Nicky, in which he played the son of the devil, I swore I wouldn't watch another Adam Sandler movie with someone else's eyes.)
His fans adore him for what he is (Sandler, playing Sandler), where critics abhor him for what he isn't (talented, mostly, given his is a range from A to A). 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, among them Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and Big Daddy. (Characters and actors from those films repeat throughout Sandler's filmography: Steve Buscemi shows up once more as a physically afflicted oaf, while Rob Schneider cameos as the delivery guy from Big Daddy.) And his target audience won't be offended by Mr. Deeds's trampling of history -- till 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 -- because it has no history. Today a young audience's idea of a classic is whatever's airing on TNT or Comedy Central.
Based on a screenplay by Robert Riskin and the short story "Opera Hat" by Clarence Budington Kelland.
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 only by those who'd seek to use, abuse, and betray him. (Early on, in Deeds's quaint New Hampshire hometown, we see him doing myriad good deeds, including carrying an elderly black man across the street; and his idea of the perfect woman is a damsel in distress, which 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 both tossing eggs at passing cars.
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. Herlihy and Brill, in their attempt to update the original and its theme of working class-versus-ruling class, have made only a sloppy, dispirited carbon. 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 cynical and 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's Spanish butler with a foot fetish, generates energy and elicits laughs. He belongs in his own picture, not playing second fiddle to an instrument without strings.