Originally created 06/28/02

At the movies: 'Mr. Deeds'

Adam Sandler's "Mr. Deeds" is not the absolute profanation of the Frank Capra original that it could have been, especially considering the remake comes from the director and co-writer responsible for Sandler's abominable "Little Nicky."

Still, "Mr. Deeds" is a movie that should not exist, sullying the memory of Capra and Gary Cooper's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" while adding nothing worthy of its own.

This new film shares the crude tone but generally decent heart of Sandler's 1999 hit "Big Daddy." Sandler would have been better off developing another original script in that vein, rather than taking on a remake that leaves him and co-star Winona Ryder open to laughable comparisons to Cooper, with his drolly sublime take on Longfellow Deeds, and Jean Arthur, with her heartbreaking transition from callous, calculating dame to remorseful heroine.

But Sandler, director Steven Brill and screenwriter Tim Herlihy (with whom the actor and Brill co-wrote "Little Nicky") felt they could bring something to the weepy classic of a small-town guy who inherits a fortune, goes to the city and shames cynical New Yorkers with his simple wisdom.

Sandler, Brill and Herlihy sorely need a reality check. Their "Mr. Deeds" is insipid, cretinous and excruciatingly unfunny, save for a handful of moments largely centering on John Turturro as a thick-accented Spanish butler.

"Mr. Deeds" may score with Sandler's audience of teen-age boys, but even the more discerning of that bunch likely will find few laughs in a movie that presents Deeds' frostbitten, blackened foot or a character's haywire eyes as gags worth repeating.

The movie is a fairly straightforward update of the first two-thirds of Capra's 1936 version, dispensing with the mental-competency hearing of the third act and distilling Capra's rich social commentary to an infantile sitcom that comes to the thunderous conclusion that rich people are bad.

Sandler's Deeds is a pizza-shop owner in Mandrake Falls, N.H., penning lousy greeting-card poems in hopes that someday Hallmark will buy one.

An uncle he never knew bequeaths Deeds a $40 billion fortune. Unfazed by new wealth, he moves into his uncle's old Manhattan digs, where his homespun attitudes beguile the staff, led by ubiquitous manservant Emilio (Turturro).

But a slimy corporate raider (Peter Gallagher) schemes to bust up the uncle's business empire. And TV journalist Babe Bennett (Ryder) goes undercover as a sweet small-town girl, cozying up to Deeds so she can capture his yokel antics on hidden camera - then inevitably falling for the lunkhead.

Like Cooper's Deeds, Sandler's tends to settle matters by punching people out. Cooper's stoic restraint made Deeds' out-of-the-blue rabbit punches seem like authentic products of his childlike sense of honor.

Sandler's Deeds wallops the tar out of people, seemingly reveling in inflicting pain as the filmmakers aim for cheap laughs.

Other than Turturro, the cast ranges from bland (Sandler, Gallagher and Jared Harris as Babe's boss) to embarrassingly bad (Ryder, and Conchata Ferrell and Peter Dante as Deeds' pizza-parlor employees).

John McEnroe and the Rev. Al Sharpton pop up in senseless cameos. And Steve Buscemi takes the need-a-new-agent prize as "Crazy Eyes," a Mandrake Falls idiot with pupils pointing in different directions. High comedy, indeed.

The only place the film acknowledges Capra is at the bottom of the end credits, yet the few sparks of cleverness come when "Mr. Deeds" lifts entire scenes from the original: Deeds and his servants testing the echoes in their cavernous foyer, the verbal comeuppance Deeds lays on a table full of snobs at a restaurant.

Bad as the movie is, it's remotely possible that Sandler and company may make some small contribution to the legacy of Longfellow Deeds. If even a few of Sandler's fans seek out the original and have their prepubescent horizons expanded, maybe "Mr. Deeds" did a good deed. Maybe.

"Mr. Deeds," released by Sony's Columbia Pictures, is rated PG-13 for language including some sexual references and some rear nudity. Running time: 97 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.


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