In the early days of “Saturday Night Live,” John Belushi was featured in a sketch called “The Thing That Would Not Leave.” He played a boorish dinner guest who took advantage of his hosts hospitality by overstaying his welcome.
“Saturday Night Live” alumni Adam Sandler should take note. A lot of “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” have made the leap from sketch comedy to the big screen, some successfully (Chevy Chase, Mike Myers), some not (Dana Carvey, Chris Katan, Julia Sweeney).
Sandler was wise to start off his career with small, humble, but endearing comedies like “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore.” Playing the overgrown adolescent, Sandler has built up a large dedicated audience, reaching his zenith with the smart and fanciful “The Wedding Singer.”
Even though “The Waterboy” and “Big Daddy” increased Sandler’s bank account, he has failed to grow as an artist. “Little Nicky” was proof positive that even his core audience was tiring of him playing variations of the same character. Sandler is at his best playing himself, the happy-go- lucky, unassuming nice guy with occasional control problems.
Which is why you would think Sandler would be the perfect candidate to play the Gary Cooper role in the remake of Frank Capra’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” In that 1936 classic, which won the Capra an Oscar for Best Director, Cooper plays a small town hick who inherits $20 million. At the time, “Deeds” was a morality comedy about how one simple man can make a difference, despite the ocean of corporate sharks and opportunist he has to navigate.
Sandler’s update of “Deeds” (with regular writer and college friend Tim Herlihy on board) should come with one of those warnings at the end of “Dragnet”: The preceding story is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. The innocent here would be Capra’s film, which has been turned into a slow, droll bastard version of itself. “Mr. Deeds” lacks the social commentary, charm and wit of the original. This Frat Boy-Cliff Notes imitation totally misses the mark.
I admit I really liked Sandler in “The Wedding Singer,” and his interaction with the lovely Drew Barrymore. Their chemistry and interaction made it not only easy to fall in love with the characters, but the film itself. There is no chemistry between Sandler and co-star Winona Ryder, who plays conniving and deceitful television producer Babe Bennett. She has been assigned to get the goods on Deeds, and pretends to be a be a school nurse named Pam Dawson. Babe sets out to torpedo Deeds but eventually begins to fall under his simple charms, if you considering beating people to a pulp charming.
When Deeds learns that he is the only living relative of a media tycoon who has just died and has left him $40 billion (inflation!), he leaves his small town pizzeria (complete with a cast of colorful characters including Steve Buscemi) for New York. Capra was a master of putting strangers in a strange land (perfect example is Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life”) and watching them interact with their surroundings, and he did it without hitting us over the head.
There’s very little subtlety in “Mr. Deeds.” Every joke, every emotion, every character quirk is over manufactured. In order to keep up with Sandler, the rest of the cast is forced to overact, turning what was once an endearing experience into an endurance test. Thanks to Herlihy’s garbage disposal script, what was once a great story has been reduced to the lowest common denominator..
It makes sense that Sandler tackle a Gary Cooper role at this point in his career. Sandler’s contemporary, Jim Carrey knew that he could only talk out of his butt so long before he would have to move on to more substantial, mature roles. With “The Truman Show” and “The Majestic,” Carrey comfortably slipped into Jimmy Stewart’s shoes. Sandler hasn’t been able to shed his juvenile side.
It’s impossible to embrace any of the characters in “Mr. Deeds,” especially Ryder’s Babe Bennett. It’s not a particularly deep role, but Ryder only begins to scratch the surface, delivering an extremely superficial performance. Herlihy has written the corporate-types as larger-than-life cartoons, turning Peter Gallagher and others into flesh and blood Snidley Whiplash’s.
The characters lack the sincerity of the Capra original, which was set during the Great Depression and came with a simple message: Money can’t buy happiness if everyone around you is starving. Without standing on a soapbox, Capra and writer Robert Riskin managed to make an affirmation on the state of the nation.
“Mr. Deeds” doesn’t have such a luxury. It comes at the wrong time. We need reminders about the decisive class structure in this country, but at this cost? The humor is mostly cruel or opportunistic, taking advantage of Sander’s core audience of teenage boys who find such matters entertaining. The love story is also a waste of time, so transparent and calculated that when Deeds and Babe finally connect we feel like we’re in hell.
No wait, that was another Adam Sandler film.
CAPPING ON CAPRASandler goes to town on “Deeds” remake
Adam Sandler, Winona Ryder, John Turturro, Peter Gallagher, Allen Covert, Jared Harris. Directed by Steven Brill. Rated PG-13. 91 Minutes.
LARSEN RATING: $2.00