Commentators inclined toward grand pronouncements will find in "Mr. Deeds" everything they need to sound off about the withering of Hollywood films in particular and American culture in general from the 1930s to today. People who just call 'em as they see 'em need only note that this remake is a perfectly dreadful film and leave it at that.

Commentators inclined toward grand pronouncements will find in “Mr. Deeds” everything they need to sound off about the withering of Hollywood movies in particular and American culture in general from the 1930s to today. People who just call ‘em as they see ‘em need only note that this remake of one of Frank Capra’s most famous pictures is a perfectly dreadful film and leave it at that. Either way, this is an embarrassment, a dimly unresourceful reworking of a rich if corny premise that just goes to show that you solicit comparison to such big boys as Gary Cooper, Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin only at your own peril. Adam Sandler fans and general audiences looking for regular-guy entertainment will turn out, although probably not in huge numbers.

The 1936 smash about a New England bumpkin who, upon coming into an enormous and unexpected fortune, decides to give it away during the depths of the Depression might have served as the basis for a shrewd and mildly subversive redo during the ’90s rash of instant millionaires; a modern Mr. Deeds’ human values could have been set off against a backdrop of characters who thought they knew it all and had it made by age 26.

But the script by Sandler regular Tim Herlihy just takes one more easy swat at corporate America, and a particularly feeble-minded one at that, and is content to recycle every cliche about the mean-spirited rich and the pure-at-heart simple folk. More to the point, the filmmakers never decide what sort of entertainment they want to make — a sendup of the culture of money, a genuinely felt romance or a slapstick comedy spiked by pratfalls — so they end up dabbling in all three and failing on each count.

Sandler’s Longfellow Deeds is a pizza parlor owner and aspiring greeting card writer in Mandrake Falls, N.H., who’s literally descended upon by corporate honchos Chuck Cedar (Peter Gallagher) and Cecil Anderson (Erick Avari) with the news that he’s just inherited $40 billion from a distant relative, Preston Blake (Harve Presnell), a childless media tycoon.

Spirited to New York City, the well-intentioned doofus instantly becomes Gotham’s most eligible bachelor as well as the target of the scandal-mongering TV show “Inside Access,” whose shameless host and boss Mac McGrath (Jared Harris) sends his babelicious reporter Babe Bennett (Winona Ryder) “undercover” to get the goods on the maladroit Mandrakian.

Thus begins one of the least convincing Hollywood romances in recent memory, and one that actually inspires a negative rooting interest based on how charmlessly conniving, deceitful and duplicitous Babe proves to be. Wearing a hidden mike and providing cover for a cameraman colleague, Babe makes sure Deeds is repeatedly caught in ridiculous poses and situations (including one prankish latenight outing with John McEnroe) that then instantly turn up on TV. Why Deeds continues to subject himself to this punishment, as well as to Babe’s mealy-mouthed lies that she’s a small-town product just like Deeds, will remain one of the mysteries of our time.

When he’s not being humiliated, Deeds hangs out at the mansion of the deceased, which is presided over by butler Emilio (John Turturro), a mysterious and fleet-of-foot Spaniard, and soaks up the suspicious reassurances of the too-slick Cedar, who clearly is up to no good. In some respects, Deeds adjusts to the good life without blinking, firing the arrogant quarterback of the pro football team he’s inherited and taking over a basketball stadium for a midcourt marriage-proposal dinner with the undeserving Babe. In others, however, he behaves bizarrely, handing out money to strangers with no rhyme or reason.

This latter business reps one of the film’s most glaring missed opportunities, in that some sort of moral intent or sense of responsibility on Deeds’ part might have been able to put the audience on board with the character. His two major philanthropic gestures seem more designed for laughs than to reflect any discernable principles, and his singular lack of purpose not only undercuts the strength of the central premise but also dilutes belief in the resolve he desperately needs to sustain his feelings for Babe.

Low-key here in comparison to his previous screen antics, Sandler looks restrained next to most of his overacting fellow cast members. A stressed-looking Ryder supplies no charm or vulnerability to leaven the extreme obnoxiousness of her character, and Gallagher and Harris enthusiastically embody the worst excesses of contempo corporate culture. A straight-faced Turturro manages a few laughs as a man carrying more secrets than even he knows, Steve Buscemi finally goes all the way with a Marty Feldman homage as a cockeyed derelict, while Avari, with his Lincolnesque beard, ever-present pipe and understated manner, is the only thesp present who would have fit comfortably into a gallery of Capra supporting players. Most incongruous appearance is put in by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who for unexplained reasons presides over the funeral service of the old business titan.

Direction of Steven Brill (“Little Nicky”) is devoid of grace, style, rhythm and consistent tone. Tech contributions tend toward the gaudy.

Mr. Deeds

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures and New Line Cinema presentation of a Happy Madison production in association with Out of the Blue Entertainment. Produced by Sid Ganis, Jack Giarraputo. Executive producers, Adam Sandler, Joseph M. Caracciolo. Co-producer, Alex Siskin. Directed by Steven Brill. Screenplay, Tim Herlihy, based on a story by Clarence Budington Kelland and adapted from "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," directed by Frank Capra and written by Robert Riskin.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Peter Lyons Collister; editor, Jeff Gourson; music, Teddy Castellucci; music supervisor, Michael Dilbeck; production designer, Perry Andelin Blake; art directors, Stephen McCabe, Stephen H. Carter (N.Y.); set designers, Kevin Cross, Al Hobbs; set decorators, Lauri Gaffin, Beth A. Rubino (N.Y.); costume designer, Ellen Lutter; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Felipe Borrero; supervising sound editor, Elmo Weber; associate producer, Allen Covert; assistant director, Gary Marcus; casting, Roger Mussenden. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, June 6, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Longfellow Deeds - Adam Sandler Babe Bennett - Winona Ryder Chuck Cedar - Peter Gallagher Mac McGrath - Jared Harris Marty - Allen Covert Cecil Anderson - Erick Avari Emilio Lopez - John Turturro Murph - Peter Dante Jan - Conchata Ferrell Preston Blake - Harve Presnell Crazy Eyes - Steve Buscemi Buddy Ward - Blake Clark Reuben - JB Smoove John McEnroe - Himself Rev. Al Sharpton - Himself
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