Citizen Sandler

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There's a moment during the opening stretch of the new Adam Sandler movie Mr. Deeds when the film comes alive in a wholly unexpected and pretty wonderful way.

Our hero, Sandler playing a small-town Everyman who's recently inherited a vast fortune, has just moved into his plush new digs on Park Avenue. The new place is really more of a palace or a museum than a home, with rooms so immense and ceilings so high that Sandler's character soon discovers the place is perfect for generating primo echo effects.

The beauty of the scene isn't revealed until the very end, when Sandler's Deeds succeeds in convincing every single member of his newly acquired and oh-so-proper staff to cut loose and join in with the echoes. Within moments, dozens of stuffy butlers, manservants, maids, chefs and whatnot are whooping their heads off, their sourpusses breaking into wide grins as they find themselves caught up in the infectious energy of Deeds' benign mischief. It's so close to a magical moment, like something out of a vintage Hollywood musical or an old Rene Clair film, when everyone in town suddenly blooms and breaks out in the most appealing sort of song. In this instant, the movie is nothing less than charming, Sandler is both childlike and heroic, and the sky's the limit for Mr. Deeds.

Ten minutes later, the sky has fallen. Our old pal Deeds is in a fancy Manhattan restaurant punching the crap out of a group of diners that have managed to rub him the wrong way — just one of many acts of pointless aggression and stupid excess played strictly for laughs — and Mr. Deeds stands nakedly revealed as just another Adam Sandler movie.

Mr. Deeds is a remake of Frank Capra's classic populist comedy from 1936, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, in which a sweetly eccentric but basically ordinary guy suddenly comes into a huge amount of money, resulting in a close encounter with all the worldly garbage that comes with great wealth. In many ways, the remake is surprisingly faithful to Capra's version (Robert Riskin, the original's screenwriter, even gets a credit on the new movie), with the primary updates taking the form of references to tabloid journalism, computers and other fixtures of 21st Century life. What really separates the two versions, though, comes down to the great divide between the movies' respective leading men.

Frank Capra had a knack for finding just the right stars for his projects, and Gary Cooper was one of his greatest (although it could be argued that Jimmy Stewart, in his Capra outings, was even better at engaging an audience's sympathies). The ultimate strong, silent hero, Cooper brought his tightly focused, no-nonsense approach to the role of Deeds, projecting integrity, dignity, common sense and oodles of movie star charisma in the context of a character who, let's face it, was just a bit of a crackpot (after all, he recited poetry, played the tuba, and wanted to give away his entire fortune).

Making the leap of faith from Gary Cooper to Adam Sandler says more about our culture than we might care to acknowledge. The 66-year slide from Cooper to Sandler is a little like confronting an evolutionary schematic charting the journey from amoebae to monkey to man, only in reverse.

We can't entirely blame Adam Sandler for this. After all, we're the ones who made him a movie star. The simple truth is that Sandler has become every bit as monumental a pop culture icon in 2002 (at least among some segments of the population) as Cooper was in his day. Millions of Americans, enamored of Sandler's sweet but slightly naughty man-child shtick and "aw shucks" naturalism, view the comedian not just as someone who's funny, but as a genuine actor.

No doubt encouraged by this, Sandler's been honing his image as of late, toning down the doofus routine in movies like The Wedding Singer and even Big Daddy, with an eye toward the credibility more serious roles might net him. Call it the Jim Carrey phenomenon. (The transformation will be complete this fall when Sandler appears in Punch Drunk, directed by big-time serious auteur Paul Thomas Anderson of Boogie Nights and Magnolia fame.)

In any event, love him or hate him, all signs point to Adam Sandler the comedian/actor being in a state of transition, and Mr. Deeds seems designed as a potentially critical stepping stone in that process. Frankly, the movie should have been a perfect vehicle for Sandler, one that, at the very least, capitalized on the desire of so many moviegoers to see him as a bumbling, innocent sort of Everyman for our bumbling, anything-but-innocent times.

Best intentions aside, that's not the way it works out in Mr. Deeds. Sandler's Deeds character is significantly less cartoony than his previous Billy Madison/Waterboy roles, but he's ultimately just as annoying (at least for anyone who isn't a hardcore Sandler devotee). Longfellow Deeds is even annoying when he's being sweet; the guy writes bad greeting card "poetry" in his spare time and then indulges himself by reading his horribly innocuous verses to the lovable old coots and codgers who inhabit his little town — some of the most feeble of whom are actually given rides on Deeds' back.

Deeds is a serial hugger with a gift for bringing out the child in the man. He loves everybody (at least when he's not kicking their teeth in). Deeds displays a special affinity for the lower and working classes — since, according to the film's POV, rich people are basically evil jerks (an interesting notion for a movie produced by and starring one of Hollywood's richest men) — but he's also handy at locating the hidden, carefree blue-collar lurking within even the most repressed, upper crust snoot.

That's why it feels so horribly wrong when Deeds crosses the line, as he does from time to time, from blandly adorable Everyman to raging vigilante (as in the scene where he pulls a Charles Bronson and pounds the crap out of some hapless sophisticate who'd dared snicker at his terrible poetry). It's as if the movie doesn't believe a word it's saying, veering on a whim from irony-free sentimentalism to mean-spirited, pain-based slapstick. When Deeds isn't initiating group hugs and giving away his money, he's slamming tennis balls into people's throats (always good for a laugh or two), kicking the crap out of guys he thinks are muggers and engaging in other forms of behavior that would surely have Frank Capra rolling over in his grave.

Capra's and Gary Cooper's Mr. Deeds was far from perfect, but the 2002 version gives the phrase "painfully sincere" a creepy new meaning. Sandler manages to surround himself with quality talent (John Turturro steals the show as the world's sneakiest butler, and Winona Ryder is appealing as a big city bimbo posing as a virginal hick from the sticks), but the film is forgettable, at best, in almost every other way. During its final half-hour, somewhere between boy-loses-girl and boy-gets-girl-back, Mr. Deeds almost completely disintegrates, and all the movie can think to do is to give us a nasty cat fight and quickly introduce a couple of last-minute problems (one involving romance, the other money) that are just as quickly resolved.

In the end, all we're left with is the obligatory, big Capra-esque speech (in which Sandler/Deeds addresses a room full of multi-millionaires on the ultimate worthlessness of money), but it falls even flatter than everything that's preceded it. It was hard enough to pull off this specialized sort of Capra corn back in 1936, and it's clearly way beyond the means of the modern Mr. Deeds. It's uncertain if neo-Deeds' big speech is supposed to be sincere or simply ironic, and, frankly, it doesn't work either way.

As with the rest of the movie, the speech-making finale has a few funny bits attached, but it's so fuzzy-headed that it all winds up feeling unconvincing on any level. Least convincing of all is Sandler himself, who just doesn't seem to have the comedic or dramatic chops to pull any of this off.

As with Gary Cooper and so many of the grand old movie stars of yore, Sandler's basic appeal seems to reside in being able to project on screen what we would like to believe — or what he would like to have us believe — is his real-life personality. The problem made abundantly clear by the schizo persona on display in Mr. Deeds — loopy/nice guy/sadist-lite — is that even Adam Sandler seems to be having a tough time believing in Adam Sandler.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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