There’s an old story about a music critic who once reported on a concert by simply writing something like, “Bernstein played Brahms last night. Brahms lost.” It’s a jibe that may aptly be resurrected with reference to Adam Sandler’s take on the 1936 Frank Capra Oscar winner, which starred Gary Cooper as a guy who inherits a large fortune and wants to give it away to the needy: Capra loses big in the transaction. “Mr. Deeds” is a surrealistically bad movie, one of those astonishing clunkers you watch agape at its awfulness. This is written from the perspective of one who’s enjoyed many of Sandler’s past vehicles, somebody who found “Happy Gilmore” and “The Waterboy” hilarious and “The Wedding Singer” and much of “Big Daddy” charming, and who even detected signs of life in “Little Nicky.” (“Billy Madison,” to be honest, left me cold.) But even the most rabid fan is likely to find this turkey painful to sit through. Even technically the picture looks chintzy; particularly offensive is the ham-fisted nature of the product placement, which on one occasion thrusts a box of Cocoa Puffs into our faces so clumsily that the effect is the cinematic equivalent of a roadside billboard suddenly bursting into view.
But if the appearance of “Mr. Deeds” is terrible, the content is even worse. In his reworking of Robert Riskin’s script for Capra, Tim Herlihy makes Sandler’s title character a rather dim pizza parlor owner (and generally beloved local fixture) in a small New Hampshire town called Mandrake Falls. (All the residents are portrayed as such yokels that the entire state should probably sue for slander.) This Deeds’ great ambition is to sell at least one greeting card sentiment to Hallmark, and so he produces dreadful verses for all occasions, which he recites to his neighbors weekly–a mechanism for inserting scads of the dumb rhymes that the comic used to recite regularly on “Saturday Night Live.” His contented life among the bevy of eccentrics he calls his pals, however, is interrupted when he’s identified as the surprise heir to the fortune (and media empire) of the late Preston Blake (Harve Presnell, in a thoroughly embarrassing cameo); soon he’s whisked off to NYC by the corporation’s sleazy CEO Chuck Cedar (Peter Gallagher) who, along with his crony Cecil Anderson (Erick Avari), plans to have Deeds sell them the company so they can dismember it and fire all the employees in search of big profits. Matters are complicated by the desire of Mac McGrath (Jared Harris), the loathsome host of a tabloid TV show, to get the goods on Deeds, a task he hands to his ambitious producer Babe Bennett (Winona Ryder). She promptly dupes our hero into thinking her a small-town girl in need of his help, and he falls for her although she repeatedly films him in compromising situations that McGrath uses to blacken his reputation. We’re supposed to root for Deeds to foil Cedar’s nefarious plans and find love with Babe despite her double game, but it’s impossible to care a whit about a lead character who’s every bit as obnoxious as the bad guys, going so far as to physically assault anybody he perceives as disrespecting him; and Sandler himself certainly doesn’t bring much to the party, walking through the role as if he were reading his lines off a teleprompter and showing all the energy of a guy with an extremely bad hangover. Unfortunately, he’s well paired with Ryder, who acts almost on the verge of hysteria throughout (understandable, in view of the asinine dialogue she has to spout) and exhibiting not an ounce of the sweetness she showed in earlier, better days. Perhaps to make up for the leads’ dreariness, the supporting players are encouraged to chew the scenery mercilessly. Gallagher and Harris are the worst offenders simply because they’ve got a lot of screen time, but Conchata Ferrell and Peter Dante are equally awful as Deeds’ pizza workers Jan and Murph (a fight scene between Ferrell and Ryder is a low point even in a disaster like this), and Allen Covert is degraded time and time again as Babe’s would-be boyfriend and inept colleague Marty. Even the usually reliable Steve Buscemi takes a dive, playing a Mandrake Falls oddball called Crazy Eyes–a name indicative of the only joke he’s handed. Avari is a slight exception to the general wretchedness; he manages to maintain his dignity even though saddled with some really tasteless material. Steven Brill directs all the unhappy performers with the same finesse and subtlety he brought to his debut feature, the slovenly kids’ camp movie “Heavyweights.”
There is, however, one small saving grace in “Mr. Deeds,” which reminds one again of Frank Capra. In his autobiography, the late director wrote about the unhappy experience of helming what turned out to be his last picture, “Pocketful of Miracles,” a remake of his 1933 classic “Lady for a Day,” in 1961. The only thing that made the shoot bearable, he reported, was working with the young Peter Falk, who–unlike the leads–was willing to take direction and use the project as a learning experience. “Thank God for Peter Falk,” Capra said. It’s a sentiment a viewer may share in response to this misguided refashioning of another of his best-loved pictures–except the name would need changing to “John Turturro.” Turturro plays the late Preston Blake’s butler Emilio, a Spanish dancer sort of guy with the odd ability to appear and disappear from view almost magically. It’s an old visual gag, but Turturro makes it seem almost fresh, and his line readings have a delightful weirdness that makes them sound nearly funny. Were it not for him, “Mr. Deeds” would be completely insufferable. With him, it’s only mostly so.