Published June 28, 2002
With every new film he appears in, the “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Adam Sandler appears to be attempting to see if there is anything he can do, any extreme of vulgarity to which he can push his movie persona — which, like Woody Allen’s, transcends any particular incarnation — that will finally put off his legion of fans. With Mr. Deeds, directed by Steven Brill and starring Mr Sandler in the title role, he may at last have succeeded. Not only is the film crass and tasteless, a celebration of brutality and stupidity, it hasn’t a joke worth laughing at in it.
Frank Capra’s original, Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), starred Gary Cooper as the shy, small-town boy from Mandrake Falls, Vermont (not New Hampshire, as in the remake) who comes unexpectedly into a fortune and goes to New York. There he becomes a subject of absorbing interest to the tabloids (as we would say today) but shows up the slick urbanites with his simple rustic virtues. There are not a lot of the latter in the remake. In fact, you might almost say that in the difference between Gary Cooper and Adam Sandler you have encapsulated the difference between the respective Hollywood cultures that produced them — to say nothing of the Decline of the West.
Longfellow Deeds is a poet in both films, but in the Sandler version he writes greeting card verse that is meant to be — or perhaps is not meant to be but is — wretchedly bad. But its badness is just part of the joke. Or alleged joke. In the Gary Cooper version, by contrast, the verse is simple, sentimental, straightforward, and meant to signify a touch of genuine, unaffected feeling in the midst of all the phoniness of the media culture (1930s version) in which the new-minted millionaire is caught up. Cooper’s Deeds was a humble practitioner of an art that he knew in greater men. There is no suggestion that the Deeds in the new version has ever taken an interest in, or even read, any poetry but his own. Perhaps that is why he asks people to forget his first name and, with it, his link to America’s now all-but forgotten 19th century bard, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
What has been lost over the intervening sixty-six years is a sense of decency. While Capra’s film celebrated the decency of ordinary Americans, which he saw as impermeable to either the allure or the phoniness of the big city, Sandler’s version has no idea of any such thing, or of any real difference between town and country either. Both New Hampshire and New York are populated by grotesques and would-be sophisticates whom one can imagine being equally embarrassed by confessions of innocence or sentiment of the kind that come so naturally to Gary Cooper’s Deeds.
Naturally, the $20 million inherited by the 1936 Mr. Deeds is bumped up to $40 billion for his present-day incarnation, but the whole idea of his giving the money away is also looked at as a joke. When he is let down by the journalist-spy, Babe Bennett — Jean Arthur in the original, a disastrously miscast Winona Ryder in the remake — Mr Deeds casually gives his money away. But in 1936 he personally supervises its distribution among 2000 farmers made bankrupt by the Depression. In the new version he just writes a check for $40 billion to the United Negro College Fund. Giving the money to the poor farmer hardly made economic sense as, in that era of low agricultural prices they would probably only have failed again — but it has the advantage of showing us a man of genuine compassion and not a mere flake.
Anyway, you don’t think Sandler’s Deeds is going to end up poor do you? A penitent Babe undertakes an investigation and discovers that the deceased billionaire had an illegitimate son, his valet Emilio (John Turturro), who should have inherited the money instead of Deeds, his nephew. So the $40 billion is taken back from the United Negro College Fund as Emilio takes control of his father’s company — though not before handing a billion of it back to Deeds for him and Babe to start their married life together. Naturally, you can’t have a hero really turning down the money these days.
Once again, Capra’s notion of a man who could be happy living a middle class existence running a business, playing tuba in the town band, writing poetry, serving as volunteer fire chief and having no need or desire to be a rich person is as alien to us as Deed’s simple but honest professions of feeling in his poetry. It was always a corny set-up, but as always in Capra’s films there was a serious truth behind it. This could be seen in its climactic scene, which was a sanity hearing got up by a conspiracy of the crooked lawyers for the old man’s estate and a couple of disgruntled claimants against it and using Deeds’s own generosity against him, as well as the newspaper articles written by Babe Bennett which chronicled the hijinks of Mr Deeds’s first few days in New York.
All this is cut from the new version — perhaps because not even his fans would believe that Adam Sandler could get through a sanity hearing with his liberty intact. But one of the great moments in the old movie comes as Deeds demolishes the expert testimony of the eminent Viennese psychiatrist, Dr. Emil Von Hallor (Gustav von Seyffertitz), who on the basis of the newspaper accounts and Deeds’s morose behavior in the hearing diagnoses him with great plausibility as a manic-depressive. The judge’s conclusion is a triumphant: “It is the finding of this hearing that you are not only not insane, you are the sanest man who has ever walked into this courtroom!”
In a world of widespread unemployment and the rise of Fascist, Nazi and Communist dictatorships in Europe it may indeed have seemed that the world had suddenly gone insane and that the simple decency of a Deeds was what was needed to bring it back to its right mind. It’s an idea that still resonates today, as decency and goodness and humility always do. Of course there is nothing of those qualities in Sandler’s version. Instead he is just a “good guy” who, when he is left with a mere one billion dollars of his original fortune, gives all his pals back in Mandrake Falls red Corvettes. Somehow I don’t think that people will be watching this in 2068 and feeling proud to be Americans.