Punching out pretension

Adam Sandler, wise-ass everyman, revisits Frank Capra.

Jul 3, 2002 at 12:00 am

Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) was Frank Capra’s 25th feature film and his first full-blown display of that sentimental populism which was to dominate his keynote movies and which was to become known, with varying degrees of fondness and derision, as Capra-corn. It tells the story of Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), an unassuming, decent, average man who lives in the unassuming, decent, average small town of Mandrake Falls, and of how an unexpected inheritance of $20 million fails to change him. The movie is very much a Depression-era fantasy, aimed squarely at the have-nots, with its guileless hero winning out over the corrupt denizens of the big city, flummoxing the foolishly rich and the venally powerful, all while winning the heart of a cynical reporter played by Jean Arthur.

While the original was very much a period piece, a remake isn’t unthinkable; with a little tweaking of the details, the basic story of good triumphing over the malicious, a perennial crowd-pleaser, could still be effective. But in Mr. Deeds the tweaking has been done with a heavy hand — though a surprising amount of the screenplay Robert Riskin devised for Capra remains — with no thought of supplanting the original context with something resembling the present day.

Worse, the story has become a vehicle for Adam Sandler, a comic with a small, twitchy talent and zero charisma, who seems to have perfected two character modes: wise-ass and remorseful wise-ass. Gary Cooper was a relatively limited actor too, but his two perfected modes — stoic and innocent — were infused with a touching amount of sincerity. Sandler couldn’t convincingly do “sincerity” if you put a gun to his head. So the movie has a hollow center — Sandler does a dialed-down version of the guy who cracks wise while mouthing the more character-developing lines with all the brio of an actor auditioning for a part he figures he has no chance of getting.

In this version Longfellow Deeds, who runs a pizza parlor where he sometimes serves as his own delivery boy, inherits $40 billion rather than $20 million — and so his nonchalant reaction seems less a matter of having an enlightened grasp of what really matters in life than just basic insanity. But, then, Mandrake Falls circa 2002 is a never-never land where nobody leads a life of quiet desperation and everybody relishes their pointless existence. (One is reminded of the old “SNL” parody of Saturday Night Fever where one of the disco punks, blissfully bursting with self-satisfaction, blurts out, “Ah, to be young, stupid and have no future!”)

Once the premise is established, the movie proceeds using a kind of narrative shorthand, sans connective tissue and character development. Deeds the Good must do battle with Cedar the Bad (Peter Gallagher), who’s trying to take control of the corporation Deeds has inherited. He also has to contend with media mogul Mac (Jared Harris), who has assigned Pam Dawson (Winona Ryder) to worm her way into Deeds’ life in hopes of getting some juicy tabloid goodies. Hovering around the main story are two cameos. There’s a painfully unfunny one by Steve Buscemi as a wall-eyed cretin, and a rather amusing one by John Turturro as Emilio, a servant whom Deeds also inherits. Emilio has a non-gender-specific foot fetish and has developed his required deference to an almost supernatural level of sneakiness.

But what’s the point? In both versions of the film Deeds has a hobby of writing greeting-card doggerel, and in both versions there’s a scene where he’s encouraged to read his verse to a few big-city sophisticates who proceed to howl with laughter. Deeds tells his persecutors that if Miss Dawson wasn’t present he’d teach them a lesson — at which point Miss Dawson says, “Oh, I don’t mind.” He proceeds to punch their lights out. In the Cooper version, it’s a decent guy teaching some rude folk a lesson in manners. In the Sandler version, it’s an excuse to have an aggressive simpleton punch a fat opera singer in the gut.

By making all the cultured people in the film supercilious twits, it plays to those smoldering bad feelings we have about people who may be smarter or, God forbid, better off than us. Which, if the movie were only funnier, would probably be a very satisfying thing.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].