'Mr. Deeds'

MoviesEntertainmentAdam SandlerPeter GallagherJohn TurturroColleges and UniversitiesEducation

It must be great fun to be a pal of Adam Sandler's. Being a member of his audience is considerably less of a treat.

"Mr. Deeds," Sandler's latest film, was put on paper by Tim Herlihy, said to be the star's college roommate, who's written or co-written six of his other films. Another college pal, Jack Giarraputo, has been a producer each time, Perry Andelin Blake has done all the production design, actor-associate producer Allen Covert is in almost everything, and even director Steven Brill has acted in three Sandler films as well as finding time to direct the noxious "Little Nicky." How cozy for all involved, but what about us?

Sandler and his cohorts must have a great time together after all these years, maybe too much so. Didn't anyone take a break from swimming in good feelings ("It's like working with family, it's the best possible of situations," the director gushingly told Daily Variety) to notice how little "Mr. Deeds" has to offer. For what's most interesting about this new film is how lacking it is in any of the things, from humor to emotion to halfway decent acting, we might go to a movie for. There's not even enough here to get mad at. Rather, it's more dispiriting than anything else to see how little a film can offer and still get made if a star who commands a paying audience decides to make it his own.

This "Mr. Deeds" is loosely inspired by the Frank Capra-Robert Riskin-Gary Cooper 1936 classic, "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town." Although what's left of the original's populism and celebration of small-town values feels distinctly half-hearted, the plot does let Sandler return to his warm and cuddly "Wedding Singer" persona.

Before we meet the aw-shucks Deeds--he avoids using his given name of Longfellow and doesn't want anyone calling him mister--we share the last moments on Earth of Preston Blake (Harve Presnell), the irascible 82-year-old billionaire who meets his end while leading an unwise assault on Mt. Everest.

Blake owned 49% of Blake Media, worth $40 billion (inflation has raised that from the $20 million of the original), and the company's oily executive Chuck Cedar (Peter Gallagher) is determined to find Blake's only living relative and bend him to his will.

That would be Deeds, a greeting-card poet manque who owns a pizzeria in Mandrake Falls, N.H., but dreams of making that big sale to Hallmark.

Meanwhile, he hugs everyone in sight ("handshakes are for strangers"), says things like "I'm wicked sorry about last night" and provides great fun for what must be an entertainment-starved town by reading his verses aloud.

The plot takes Deeds to Manhattan, where he falls into the clutches of Babe Bennett (Winona Ryder), a producer for tabloid TV's "Inside Access." She pretends to be a school nurse from the Midwest to gain Deeds' trust for her own venal aims, but soon finds herself fatally attracted to someone she calls, in the film's determinedly pedestrian dialogue, "a good-hearted guy who doesn't share our sense of ironic detachment."

This notion could be entertaining--it certainly was in the original--but that doesn't happen here. For one thing, the film's pacing and direction are so lackadaisical that nominal professionals like Steve Buscemi and John Turturro make as little impact as non-pros like John McEnroe and the Rev. Al

Sharpton.

That lack of energy seems to have infected Sandler as well. He seems barely there as Longfellow Deeds, disengaged from a role that only seems to interest him when, in moments that would be classified as psychotic in a more coherent film, he departs from his pose of decency to deliver any number of savage beatings to people who step out of line. They certainly don't make sweet and lovable guys the way they used to.

They don't seem to be making parts for Ryder the way they used to either. While Sandler showed in Paul Thomas Anderson's forthcoming "Punch-Drunk Love" that he's capable of expanding his range, this gifted actress seems to be contracting hers. Not only is this the kind of cookie-cutter part that would have been unimaginable for Ryder a few years ago, she seems completely lost in it. Truly this is a performance of which the less said the better.

The same is true for "Mr. Deeds." It's a film that isn't there, 91 minutes of celluloid without a movie. The question the nasty executive asks an underling--"Is this a joke to you?"--could, with a change of inflection, be more profitably asked of the film as a whole.

MPAA rating: PG-13 for language, including sexual references, and some rear nudity. Times guidelines: some moments of crassness and unexpectedly nasty.

'Mr. Deeds'

Adam Sandler...Longfellow Deeds

Winona Ryder...Babe Bennett

John Turturro...Emilio Lopez

Allen Covert...Marty

Peter Gallagher...Chuck Cedar

Jared Harris...Mac McGrath

Columbia Pictures and New Line Cinema present a Happy Madison production in association with Out of the Blue Entertainment, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Steven Brill. Producers Sid Ganis, Jack Giarraputo. Executive producers Adam Sandler, Joseph M. Caracciolo. Screenplay Tim Herlihy, based on a story by Clarence Budington Kelland. Cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister. Editor Jeff Gourson. Costumes Ellen Lutter. Music Teddy Castellucci. Production design Perry Andelin Blake. Art director Stephen McCabe. Set decorator Lauri Gaffin. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

In general release.

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