Movie review, 'Mr. Deeds'

EntertainmentMoviesWinona RyderFrank Capra Jr.Adam SandlerTelevisionSteve Buscemi

With his cool-doofus comic style and engaging little-boy grin, Adam Sandler often triumphs over the badness of his own movies -- and his new one, "Mr. Deeds," gives him a lot to triumph over.

It's a terrible remake of Frank Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," that great Depression-era comedy about a small-town hero who inherits a fortune and is whisked off to Manhattan, where he wins hearts and outwits the city slickers who want to steal his money.

The original "Deeds" is such a beloved movie that it seems almost foolish to brave comparisons -- despite the sad fact that most of the new audience hasn't seen it. Yet Sandler gamely takes on Gary Cooper's role of Longfellow Deeds -- and that's only the first area where this movie doesn't measure up -- a sterling, tuba-playing citizen of Mandrake Falls, N.H.

Sandler's beleaguered co-star, Winona Ryder, is no match for the original movie's honey-voiced charmer, Jean Arthur, as the scheming but nice star reporter Babe Bennett. (Here, Babe has been modernized into the troubled producer of a sleaze-TV celebrity gossip show). Peter Gallagher, as crooked lawyer Cedar, is outslicked by the original's saturnine Douglas Dumbrille. And even though writer Tim Herlihy has been surprisingly faithful to the 1936 screenplay's original form -- Deeds still plays a naive country-guy idealist who wants to do good but is chastened by Cedar's chicanery and his own affair with Babe -- Herlihy is no Robert Riskin.

But why should he be? To put it mildly, director Steven Brill (helmer of Sandler's ghastly "Little Nicky" and writer of the three bubble-headed "Mighty Ducks" scripts) is no Frank Capra. The new "Mr. Deeds" lacks almost everything that made the 1936 movie an enduring classic: idealism, heart, social and political savvy, convincing romanticism, robust ensemble acting and humor.

What it offers instead is a smart-aleck show with lead-footed jokes about a bad-tempered boob making monkeys out of a lot of transparent crooks, snobs and meanies. Sandler, meanwhile, tries to bend the Cooper role to his own loosey-goosey, head-banging persona. But his Deeds is a surlier, less-winning fellow prone to inexplicable tantrums. Often he acts like a spoiled hothead who's always had money.

Longfellow Deeds made sense as a Gary Cooper role, but he's a bad match for Sandler -- even if, superficially, Deeds seems to fit into Sandler's movie gallery of seeming losers who turn the tables. Cooper radiated innate American wholesomeness and steadfast courage. Sandler acts mostly like a sweet but foul-mannered kid looking for toys to break; an arrested-development eccentric who's been handed $40 billion. (Cooper's Deeds, in the less-inflated '30s, only got $20 million.)

Despite the unusually good cast -- Steve Buscemi pops up, doing a Marty Feldman impression as small-town oddball Crazy Eyes -- there's only one actor in this movie who made me laugh. And it wasn't Sandler, but John Turturro as endearingly flamboyant butler Emilio Lopez, who keeps appearing and disappearing in Deeds' inherited palatial digs, with a panache suggesting a magician/flamenco dancer on MTV.

Turturro is the one thing that's right with the movie. Perhaps the weakest thing about the new "Deeds" is its utter lack of a strong viewpoint and real emotion -- things Sandler does get in "The Wedding Singer" and in his upcoming Cannes prize-winner "Punch-Drunk Love."

Capra's "Deeds" was full of heart-tearing, intense, dramatic scenes where the characters came alive in between the shenanigans. The perspective here resembles a late-night talk-show host dissing everybody and waiting for the big stars to come on.

The original Deeds fought for the little guy during the Depression. This movie, written well before the Enron revelations, is about crooked corporations that are screwing their stockholders. But it's really just fighting to win the teen-to-20 audience. Little guys are almost absent and when they do appear, they tend to be comic cretins, like Buscemi's Crazy Eyes.

Maybe the worst thing you can say about the new "Mr. Deeds" is that it probably won't even annoy its ostensible targets: greedy corporate crooks. Unlike Capra's Depression villains, the models for Sandler's bad guys shouldn't feel too uncomfortable watching this version. It might even make them laugh.

1 1/2 stars
"Mr. Deeds"
Directed by Steven Brill; written by Tim Herlihy, based on the screenplay "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," by Robert Riskin, adapted from the story "Opera Hat" by Clarence Budington Kelland; photographed by Peter Lyons Collister; edited by Jeff Gourson; production designed by Perry Andelin Blake; music by Teddy Castellucci; produced by Sid Ganis, Jack Giarraputo. A Columbia Pictures/New Line Cinema release; opens Friday, June 28. Running time: 1:31. MPAA rating: PG-13 (language, sexual references, some rear nudity).
Longfellow Deeds -- Adam Sandler
Babe Bennett -- Winona Ryder
Emilio Lopez -- John Turturro
Chuck Cedar -- Peter Gallagher
Mac McGrath -- Jared Harris
Crazy Eyes -- Steve Buscemi Preston Blake -- Harve Presnell

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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