Very loosely based on the 1936 classic, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which garnered a directing Oscar for the legendary Frank Capra, the current flick is neither a remake nor an homage. It's more like a raised middle finger to cinema history and a yawn of indifference to contemporary audiences. Sandler plays the title role that once brought Gary Cooper his first of five Academy Award nominations, and I'll eat this review without the benefit of hot sauce if Sandler joins him as a nominee.
In his current incarnation, Longfellow Deeds owns a pizza parlor in Mandrake Falls, N.H. (an example of the imagination at work in this picture is that Mandrake Falls has been relocated from Vermont), where he entertains a town full of loons by reading them the terrible greeting cards he writes and Hallmark stubbornly refuses to publish. (Imagination at work: Gary Cooper' Deeds did publish his greeting cards.) Deeds' rich uncle dies and leaves him corporate stock worth $40 billion. (Imagination: Cooper's Deeds only got $20 million.) Deeds reacts to this rather amazing news much as he might to finding a penny in a parking lot. But maybe that's just Sandler's "acting."
The plan is for Deeds to cash out the stock and turn management of his uncle's media empire over to slimy bad guy Chuck Cedar (Peter Gallagher). Though it makes no sense, Deeds goes to New York to get his check. This enables him to be targeted for ridicule by a trash TV show and its ace reporter Babe Bennett (Winona Ryder). Babe works the romance angle and calls herself Pam Dawson. (Imagination: Jean Arthur's original Babe called herself Mary Dawson). Babe has a video camera hidden in her bra and is able to film Deeds doing all sorts of bad things, mainly beating people up. Deeds doesn't like people to make fun of him. When they do, he sucker-punches them and kicks them in the head. (Imagination: we liked Gary Cooper.)
Later Deeds makes the acquaintance of former tennis great John McEnroe. I think McEnroe is included so that Sandler won't be the only person in the movie who has never before had an acting role. Deeds and Johnny Mac throw down some brews and then throw eggs at taxis. Babe captures it all with her bra. Well, Deeds is so steamed at TV's outing him for being an unmitigated jerk that he up and gives his entire $40 billion to the United Negro College Fund. Since there are otherwise no minorities in this movie, this particular decision is either a crude and typically unfunny joke or the greatest act of tokenism in movie history.
Things must be really desperate in Hollywood these days. I say that because aside from Sandler and McEnroe, director Steven Brill has attracted a capable cast. Ryder is winning here, as she should be, even though acting with Sandler must have been a chore. That Babe would fall in love with a character as blank as this version of Longfellow Deeds is nothing short of preposterous. Elsewhere we have the estimable Steve Buscemi. Buscemi has been in bad movies before, but he's never been humiliated, and I ache for him that he's reduced to playing a character as cartoonish and irrelevant as the vision-impaired Crazy Eyes. Conchata Ferrell suffers a similar fate. This woman is an award-winning actress who has appeared in more than 50 films and countless TV shows. Here she has to endure getting kicked in the groin by Winona Ryder in an appalling, pointless fight scene.
Only Turturro manages to slip the noose of this pathetic script. He plays Deeds' uncle's butler, and what little humor the picture generates comes directly from Turturro's game efforts. His sly line delivery wrings laughs where none should exist. Yes, he's reduced to pounding Deeds' frost-bitten foot with a fire poker, a scene that makes even less sense than most in this lame movie. But with arched eyebrow, flared nostril and licked lip he creates a character of true distinction.
But then Turturro is a true pro. In contrast, Sandler's entire attitude suggests that he's above, well, everything. He's the opposite of Jim Carrey, who works too hard and who seems altogether desperate to make us laugh. Sandler's approach oozes arrogance. He's got his money, and evidently doesn't care whether we laugh or not.