They used to say Kevin Costner was the next Gary Cooper. Well, that didn't really work out, so here's Adam Sandler, of all people, trying to slide his footsies into Cooper's size 12s. Mr. Deeds, which was put together by the same crew Sandler's been working with since "Saturday Night Live" ' most of them went to NYU together ' is a remake-update of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Frank Capra's classic screwball comedy about the common man and his uncommon wisdom. Cooper was at his best in that 1936 film, deftly combining shyness and slyness. As Longfellow Deeds, a Yankee hayseed blown into New York City on the strength of a $20 million windfall, Cooper gave the impression of just being along for the ride when in fact he had both hands on the reins, waiting for the big scene at the end, when he would tug gently on those reins and say, "Whoa, horsey." Nobody could stop a movie in its tracks like Gary Cooper.
You can see why Sandler, looking in the mirror, thought there was a slight resemblance. He, too, combines shyness and slyness in his comic portrayals, from Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore to Big Daddy and Little Nicky. The difference is that Cooper was very much a man, not to mention a leading man. Whereas Sandler, although he's aged steadily throughout his films, still has one foot in sixth grade. In Mr. Deeds, that would be his right foot, which as the result of frostbite, is now blackened and devoid of feeling. One of the movie's more amusing moments ' and these amusing moments need to be savored, if only for their rarity ' is when John Turturro, as Deeds' wacky Spanish butler, whacks away at the foot in question with a fireplace poker. Turturro, who turns the English language into so much gazpacho, is the movie's comic relief. Ideally, of course, a comedy would have serious relief amidst all that, uh, comedy.
Which brings up Winona Ryder, who has the old Jean Arthur role of the hardened big-city newswoman softened by Deeds' small-town charms. I would love to say Ryder walks away with the movie, walking away with things lately having become something of a specialty of hers. (Allegedly!) But she isn't right for this movie, doesn't have the kind of shallow depths that romantic comedians draw on. And so she ends up crying a lot, overplaying the scenes where she apologizes to Deeds for having deceived him. The deceptions are rather amusing, including telling Deeds that she grew up in a little Iowa town called Winchester...ton...field...ville, each syllable digging another foot in her grave. Ryder's Babe Bennett, who works for a tabloid TV show called "Inside Access," is trying to cozy up to ' i.e., get the scoop on ' Deeds, who wakes up one morning with a media empire worth $40 billion. Most of us would faint at such news. Deeds shrugs...and starts giving it away.
That kind of populism went over better during the Great Depression, when nobody had any money and fat cats hit the pavement on their way from the penthouse to hell. Sandler's Deeds, once he's ensconced in a Manhattan apartment building that trumps Trump Tower, starts handing out wads of cash to rich and poor alike; he's an equal-opportunity philanthropist. But the movie goes out of its way ' literally, when Deeds has the company helicopter touch down outside a Wendy's ' to prove that our overnight mogul still has the common touch. He's friendly to elevator operators, insists that everybody call him Deeds, not Mr. Deeds, and periodically beats the holy crap out of whoever's bugging him at the time. This character quirk may have been added to assuage Sandler's early-teen fan base; nevertheless, I enjoyed watching Peter Gallagher get the Happy Gilmore treatment to the chest, the forehead, then the neck.
Gallagher's Chuck Cedar is a corporate shark who plans to relieve Deeds of that $40 billion before he's had a chance to give it all away. It's a nothing role, and Gallagher does little with it, but there's something about those Groucho eyebrows that brings out the sadist in me. In Deeds, too. Other than his temper tantrums, though, Deeds is the salt of the earth, a friend to all. I suppose Sandler felt that, after playing the devil's offspring in Little Nicky, he needed to polish his halo this time around, but he sure lays it on thick. For Deeds not only greets everybody with a hug, he composes poetry in his spare time that he hopes to sell to Hallmark someday. I kept waiting for the movie to send up this idea, but it never does. Not only that, the poems are terrible dreck. Sandler was once the poet laureate of dreck ' wonderful dreck. (Just listen to "The Hanukkah Song.") What the hell has happened to him?
What's happened is that he's been trying to graduate from sixth grade, but that's where his talent lies. When Sandler tries to play a grownup, as he does through most of Mr. Deeds, his face goes slack, his body shuts down, his voice leaks out the side of his mouth, like a ventriloquist's. When Gary Cooper played an average guy, he was a Hollywood movie star playing an average guy; when Sandler does it, he's an average guy playing an average guy. There's no charisma. Maybe he should give up on acting and go back to acting up. And rather than thank the little people, maybe he should spank the little people, create some comic mayhem. Let's face it, some entertainers are meant to stay young forever.