Directed by: Steven Brill
Starring: Adam Sandler, Winona Ryder, John Turturro, Conchata Ferrell
There's a scene early on in Frank Capra's 1936 classic, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, where Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) is packed off on a train by the townsfolk of Mandrake Falls, Vt. on his trip to New York to collect his $20 million (interestingly, the amount of Sandler's guaranteed salary for the new version) inheritance. As he looks out over the assembled crowd, he mutters, "Gee, I've got a lot of friends." It's a simple, heartfelt, wonderful little moment in a film filled with such moments. Almost exactly the same scene occurs in Steven Brill's Adam Sandlerized version of the story, Mr. Deeds, with Deeds boarding a fancy helicopter to claim his $40 billion inheritance (inflation, you know) -- except for one thing: Deeds' realization of how many friends he has is conspicuously absent. And it's no surprise, since in the Sandler film everyone in Mandrake Falls (which has apparently fallen prey to continental drift and is now in New Hampshire) exists solely as an extension of Sandler's Longfellow Deeds. This Deeds is the center of the known universe -- and he's fully aware of it. The scary thing is that it's hard not to think this is how Sandler himself feels -- and when you're making movies for your own production company that are written (considering the huge chunks of Robert Riskin's 1936 script that are lifted intact for this, transcribed might be a better word) and directed by your best friends, I suppose you might well have trouble not feeling this way. Regardless, I'm going on record as saying he ain't no Gary Cooper. With his rumpled clothing, boorish -- occasionally psychotic (he doesn't just punch people, he pummels them) -- behavior, and his circa 1952 Jerry Lewis haircut, he comes across more as a pathetic 30-something who never got past hanging out in shopping center parking lots with his "buds." That's only part of the problem with Mr. Deeds. The greater problem lies in the idea of taking a fairly serious role conceived for a light leading man and transforming it into something suitable for a broad comic with a penchant for "shtick" comedy. This requires changing Deeds from a simple man to a simpleton. The greeting-card poems that the original Deeds wrote may not have been literary masterpieces, but they passed muster as what they were. The verses contrived by Sandler's Deeds -- including such classy notions as promising to "love you for 40 years more, even when your bosoms sag to the floor" -- are just sophomoric jokes that we're supposed to believe he actually submits to Hallmark. Even if you can accept that, it's very hard to accept this kind of crudity in a character who punches out a football player for swearing in front of a woman. (It's telling that Mr. Deeds tries to present Sandler as a warm-and-fuzzy innocent, yet comes with a trailer attached for an animated film called 8 Crazy Nights in which Sandler's character scores "laughs" by making fun of someone's physical abnormality.) What you end up with is a pretty solid story -- thanks to Riskin's original screenplay -- reconfigured as an Adam Sandler vehicle, meaning that character goes out the window in favor of broad gags that also cause the story to drop in its tracks for their duration. If you're unfamiliar with the original film, Mr. Deeds is probably so-so entertainment. Even then, it's riddled with plotholes, agonizingly obvious product placement (one scene plays with a box of Cocoa Pebbles taking up half the screen) and shoddy execution. A sequence where Deeds rescues some cats from a burning building is appalling. Not only does the fire mostly consist of a blazing box of Special K (what is it with this movie and cereal?), but there's a cat in plain view after Deeds has rescued all the cats. The original film gave Deeds a purpose by having him decide to do something with his money. The new film merely has him find it isn't making him happy, so he gives it away, but it is so complacent about it that he has to ask for the name of a good charity. And then, in a plot device grafted on for this version, the money appears to still be available for an ending in which Deeds accepts a mere billion of it for himself. So much for good Deeds. There are some pleasant things in the film. Winona Ryder doesn't disgrace the old Jean Arthur role, and looks very fetching in a cloche hat. The ever-reliable Conchata Ferrell has a few good moments. And best of all, there's John Turturro as Deeds' "very sneaky" Spanish butler, who handily walks off with every scene he's in. But overall ... go rent the real Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and see how this should be done.