Poor Nonie. It’s not bad enough that she’s been charged with shoplifting some $4000 worth of clothes at Saks and called out by Bill O’Reilly as having “something wrong with her.” She’s also had to do publicity for the latest Adam Sandler movie. In interview after interview, on a recent Saturday Night Live, and during an MTV Movie Awards presentation gig with Sandler earlier this month, Winona Ryder has had to act as if playing opposite this guy — who makes sophomoric comedies by design — is something she wanted to do. On purpose.
It’s possible, of course, that she believes what she’s saying, that her experience on the set of Mr. Deeds was wonderful, that she thinks it’s a film with important “messages,” about being true to yourself and thinking positively. It’s also possible that she brings to the project a kind of insight and faith that might elude the bulk of the film’s audience, who will be coming to see the next Adam Sandler movie. I, for one, prefer to think that this is the case.
Still, and much as you might love Ryder and respect her motives (whatever they may have been — perhaps she saw Drew in The Wedding Singer), it’s hard to figure why she made this movie (she must have missed Fairuza Balk in The Waterboy, Joey Lauren Adams in Big Daddy, and most especially, Patricia Arquette in Little Nicky). For, even as an Adam Sandler vehicle, Mr. Deeds must have looked like a bad idea from jump. Its makers have said again and again, it updates Frank Capra’s classic Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, but it follows exactly the dreary formula laid down by its many Sandlerian predecessors — Billy Madison (1995), Happy Gilmore (1996), The Wedding Singer (1998), The Waterboy (1998), Big Daddy (1999), and the exceedingly awful Little Nicky (2000). That is, Sandler plays a smalltown-backwoods-illegitimate dimwit (or maybe just a profoundly unambitious law school graduate) whose purity of heart triumphs over the smart-alecky hijinks of various antagonists, ranging from golf pros to football players to Satan.
Sandler and Company have been working overtime to promote the latest version: he even apologized for Ryder’s absence at last week’s L.A. gala screening, something to the effect of, “She wishes she could be here, but…” In her absence, Sandler himself — who, by all accounts is a tremendously nice guy — has soldiered on, appearing everydamnwhere (most of it, admittedly, on MTV — the guy knows where his bread is buttered). He’s done an HBO’s First Look, been on TRL, MTV Diary, ET, and, my favorite, last week’s MTV Movie House where her was interviewed by Snoop, of all possible people on the planet: Snoop, bless him, stepped up to proffer a new movie idea, something involving a superhero in pimp-gear; maybe Sandler and his buds will take a hint: time to move on.
For now, though, you have the same old story, directed by Little Nicky cowriter-director Steven Brill, wherein Sandler plays a little-ville New Hampshire pizza parlor owner named Longfellow Deeds, who is the unlikely and unknowing heir to a $40 billion fortune. When his will-less uncle dies suddenly, Deeds — minding his own beeswax in New Hampshire — is suddenly beset by conniving exec Chuck Cedar (Peter Gallagher — wasn’t he in Steven Soderbergh’s first movie?) and his pipe-chewing crony Cecil (Erick Avari). The city slickers arrive in the boonies to inform Deeds of his new income bracket, then haul him down to New York City via private helicopter, to sign over his shares in his dead uncle’s humungous corporation.
Conveniently, drawing up the papers takes a few days, and so Deeds has some time to wreak havoc in the Big Apple. A sudden celeb, he makes the most of it, beating down an obnoxious opera singer in a restaurant, throwing eggs at cars with John McEnroe (who plays himself, perhaps scavenging for more publicity for the new autobiography, as if he needed more). Cedar does his best to make Deeds feel bad, but his target is impervious to abuse, fighting back with a standard Sandlerian shtick — the blandly metaphorical sports contest in which the opponent is battered by balls, this time, tennis.
As if this isn’t enough fun, Deeds also faces a secondary antagonist, tabloid tv host Mac McGrath (Jared Harris — didn’t he play Andy Warhol?), apparently desperate to exploit Deeds nightly. He puts his most vivacious reporter on the story, Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur’s role in the Capra, here filled by the lovely, one-time-Oscar-nominee Winona). She tapes a camera between her breasts and pretends to be a damsel being mugged: Deeds saves her by beating the bejesus out of the pretend-mugger (he’s Babe’s coworker, Marty, played by Sandler movie regular Allen Covert, who spends the rest of the movie in neck-brace and bruises: how hilarious is that?).
To seduce Deeds, Babe pretends to be virginal school nurse “Pam Dawson.” He falls hard, romancing her on a series of “dates.” For one, they ride bikes to a fountain, where they chat about their pasts (hers fictional, his unspeakably boring), and when a fire truck rolls by, Deeds, a volunteer fireman back in New Hampshire, scoots on over to the site. As Pam looks on adoringly, he proceeds to save a woman and her seven cats from her burning apartment, tossing one flaming kitty through the air, and thank god!, it lands in an observing fireman’s bucket. Such incidents seem designed to demonstrate Deeds’ unbelievable geniality and integrity, by way of the Sandler Machine’s typically preposterous, increasingly well-worn and unfunny gags, physical and pseudo-farcical. The Pam-Deeds dates are terminally dull, with everyone reading lines as if they’ve only just come to mind, wandering from topic to topic, without punch-lines. Occasional dollops of stupidly violent slapstick don’t help, though it’s apparent that someone on the set thought Deeds’ repeated recourse to pummeling and body slamming was a terrific idea.
The single sliver of speed and sly humor comes in the form of John Turturro, who might as well be in another movie, so removed is he from this one’s sluggish tempo and silly sensibility. As the dead uncle’s loyal valet, Emilio, Turturro gets to play a foot fetishist who prides himself on being “sneaky, sneaky.” His energy infects the film when he’s on screen, particularly as he indulges his obsession: he suddenly appears once or twice “underfoot,” as it were, surprising his new employer with nearly vampiric abilities to change locations without moving in any visible sense. These instances are as goofy as anything else in the movie, to be sure, but they do, at the very least, pick up the pace. And Turturro plays perversity with a relish I can only describe as endearing.
Indeed, while Emilio serves a couple of rudimentary narrative functions — dispensing knowledge of the dead uncle’s sense of charity, or providing a neat climax (for reasons that hardly matter), his perversion — especially as it frames his boy-bonding with Deeds, is most welcome. So, when he espies Deeds’ black foot (supposedly deadened by frostbite when he was a child, but really just a cumbersome key “plot” point later on), Emilio’s eyes roll back: “De hideousness of dat foot will haunt my dreams!” he shudders. Or, when Deeds is practicing his proposal to Pam, he makes Emilio scooch down in his chair, pretending to be her short self, speaking her part — “I think about you all the time,” etc. Of course, when Emilio asks to touch Deeds’ foot, that tears it, but until that instant, their romance looks as likely as anything else in the movie.
Perhaps the most perverse point comes during this proposal rehearsal, as Pam appears far above the two men, then learns, at the same instant they do, that her ruse is revealed by that big meanie Mac. Deeds turns on her, she’s left bereft. Horrifically, she has to turn into a version of Deeds to win him back — which she does, willingly — following him to New Hampshire and beating down opponents. It’s all a saggy, inept mess. And it really makes you long for Michael Keaton and “The Banana Boat Song.”