Mr. Deeds
dir. Steven Brill
Opens Fri June 28 at various theaters.

Adam Sandler doesn't need plot in order to perform his shtick, he needs a series of excuses. In the new Sandler vehicle Mr. Deeds, a remake of Frank Capra's 1936 film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, these include the following: an excuse to rescue a woman from a burning building, so he can bounce her cats off the giant fire-department trampoline; an excuse to write in verse, so he can gleefully rattle off words that rhyme with "beer"; even an excuse to have a butler change his socks will do, because then co-star John Turturro can confess a gratuitous fetish: "I like feet. I don't know why."

The most perplexing thing about Mr. Deeds--and there are many, many perplexing things about this movie--is why director Steven Brill hit upon the 1936 original as a plausible candidate for a post-millennial makeover. Capra's Depression-era tale stars Gary Cooper as Longfellow Deeds, a resident of Mandrake Falls, who is gainfully employed by the greeting-card industry. The plot is simple enough: Deeds unexpectedly inherits a large sum of money and travels to the big city to get his affairs in order--where, inevitably, he meets up with a host of unsavory types dying to get their hands on his cash.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town seems an unlikely choice for the Sandler treatment for a number of reasons. It's indicative of the kindly, even reverent tone of the older film that the protagonist's given name, Longfellow, isn't meant to be interpreted sarcastically. His namesake (a poet whose stock rated considerably higher in the '30s than it does today) serves not as a bitter reminder of Deeds' failure to produce immortal works of art, but as a gentle jab at the democratizing virtue of his low-culture aspirations.

Other issues make Mr. Deeds Goes to Town completely unsuited to the current zeitgeist. The central theme of the original pits the corruption of the big city against the authenticity of the small town. Since last September, it's become downright unpatriotic--and treacherously anti-Western--to deplore the evils of, say, New York, NY. So while Gary Cooper railed against his greedy, heartless surroundings, Adam Sandler bounds down a grimy sidewalk shouting his love for the Big Apple. With the Great Depression safely behind us, the urgency of Deeds' campaign to redistribute his own newfound wealth also dissipates in the remake. In this brazen about-face, Adam Sandler's Deeds nearly makes the colossal mistake of dismantling the new media empire he has inherited. Thankfully, the imminent loss of thousands of jobs is averted at the last minute by self-interested journalist Winona Ryder, in a pale imitation of the original Jean Arthur role.

But then again, perhaps it was the very need to overhaul the conceptual structure of the original that appealed to Brill, Sandler, and company. A gutted fable supplies the perfect infrastructure for a hundred stupidly humorous comedy sketches. It's not as though we held the original film particularly sacred; indeed, its own irritating didacticism ensures that we won't much care that Adam Sandler is turning its moral framework inside out.

The fundamental structure that this production preserves from Capra's original--and perhaps the only plausible grounds for that film's selection in the first place--is a roller coaster of sentimentality. Sandler's take on the sentimental is a world apart from Gary Cooper's; more sly than earnest, the requisite sappy ending functions to reassure rather than stir the viewer.

Occasionally, though, the strain of reconciling these two sensibilities shows through, making this Adam Sandler film quite a bit lumpier than any of his previous efforts (which is saying something, I know). Particularly troublesome is any scene involving Winona Ryder. In one particularly egregious exchange, she berates her co-workers at a Hard Copy clone for picking on Deeds "because he doesn't share our sense of ironic detachment!" Which may have been true of Gary Cooper's Deeds, but Adam Sandler grew up with irony in his diapers. Possibly we are supposed to overlook this inconsistency, since in stark contrast with her 1936 counterpart, Ryder's character is supposed to be stupid, and a "slut" to boot. Why else would she coo enthusiastically at Deeds' imbecilic love poetry, when even the poet is in on the joke? The only thing you really need to know about Mr. Deeds is this: For every genuinely funny trampolining cat (and there are five or six), there is a shot of Winona Ryder looking terrified for no particular reason. Is she afraid someone over the age of 10 might be watching?

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