Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a charming classic of the American cinema. (Actually, it was originally written for the stage.) In Capra’s film, Gary Cooper plays Mr. Deeds, a good-hearted small-town lug with a penchant for petty poetry.
He’s playing the tuba when the visiting New York lawyers tell him he’s inherited his uncle’s fortune. The look of shock on his face turns out to have been nothing more than deep thought — he was trying to remember what he was going to say to his housekeeper.
Deeds takes his small-town values with him to New York City to claim his fortune. In the big city, he is scoffed at, derided, and eventually called insane. But Capra lets Mr. Deeds get the last word. A great courtroom scene shows the neurotic New Yorkers are just as crazy as small-town Deeds, and that Deeds’ insanity is just ordinary human quirkiness.
PG-13 for language
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Enter Adam Sandler, the edgy comic with a heart of gold. Sandler comic style is unique and very effective. He has a violent edge, a quick temper that allows for some funny slapstick moments. It helps that his targets are always schoolyard bullies. Afterwards, his quiet, genuine concern takes over as he helps the pathetic underdog, the damsel in distress, or his elderly grandmother.
Mr. Deeds seems like the perfect role for Sandler to reprise. And in fact, the role is not a bad fit. But the movie is so sloppy and lazy that it’s hard to get behind it.
Formula and cliche have always been good enough for Sandler’s films. Just overdo the movie cliche, let the audience in on the joke, and the film doesn’t suffer. But not this time. Somehow, Mr. Deeds seems less funny, like Sandler, Tim Herlihy and Steven Brill (his writer and director, respectively) weren’t even trying. There are long dry spells between laughs, and there isn’t enough of Adam Sandler’s schtick.
Joining Sandler is a cast of talented B-list stars. John Turturro is the hot-blooded Spanish servant to Deeds’ deceased uncle. Bug-eyed Steve Buscemi, wearing even buggier prosthetic eyes, makes an appearance as Deeds’ friend Crazy Eyes from back home. And finally, Winona Ryder plays the reporter who gets close to Deeds in order to get the story.
Ryder can’t sell the sweetness her role calls for. She’s a cutthroat reporter pretending to be a small-town girl. Jean Arthur nailed the role in 1936. Ryder, by contrast, always seems like she’s trying too hard to pretend to be a small-town girl, and it’s implausible that Sandler’s character would ever fall for her. Just a little broad comedy goes a long way, and Ryder piles it on too high. (I have to concede that she manages to sell “touched” when Deeds reads her a card written just for her.)
Adam Sandler movies are not paragons of artistic structure. But at least they’ve usually been concise. The biggest disappointment about Mr. Deeds is that it is ramblingly long. Many scenes feel left in for length, and the whole movie would have benefitted from another round of editing and some beefed up comedy in the script.
Though I’ve liked almost all of Sandler’s movies, and though I love his comic style, I just can’t support Mr. Deeds. Do yourself a favor and rent Frank Capra’s version instead. It’s funnier.