Dir: Steven Brill. US. 2002. 96 mins.
The Adam Sandler hit factory appears to be back in business. After falling way short of their usual box office standards with 2000's surreally wacky Little Nicky, the boyish star and his regular writing and producing partners revert to much safer material with Mr Deeds, a soppy, messy but, taken on its own terms, broadly funny romantic comedy loosely adapted from Frank Capra's 1936 classic Mr Deeds Goes To Town. Critics and Capra connoisseurs will probably hate it. But Sandler's predominantly young male domestic audience has already bought in, giving the film a $37.6m US opening. Wider audiences could follow, suggesting that Mr Deeds may eventually be able to approach the $160m-plus US grosses achieved by Sandler's 1999 offering Big Daddy and 1998 outing The Waterboy. Whether international audiences will finally come to see Sandler's appeal is another matter entirely: so far they have given even the star's biggest hits a relatively cool reception (they added a fairly modest $70m to Big Daddy's US take, for example) and there's no reason to think they will act any differently now.
Since the disappointment of Little Nicky, Sandler has begun to broaden his range a bit, taking the lead in Paul Thomas Anderson's well-received Cannes competition entry Punch Drunk Love and signing on to play opposite Jack Nicholson and Marisa Tomei in the forthcoming Anger Management. Here, however, he is back in the goofily good-natured persona that has worked for him from Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore through to more recent successes. His Longfellow Deeds is a small-town pizza parlour owner - and amateur composer of sickly greeting card poetry - who unexpectedly inherits a $40bn media empire. Brought to New York by the company's scheming chief exec (Gallagher), Deeds starts spreading cash and bonhomie around to the uptight big city folks. But his celebrity draws the attention of Babe Bennett (Ryder), a tabloid TV producer who wins Deeds' affection by posing as a small town naïf herself. In the end, of course, Deeds' old time mores put the money hungry urbanites to shame and everyone comes to realise that there's more to life than cold hard cash.
The moral seemed heartfelt when delivered by Gary Cooper in Capra's Depression-era classic, but it feels laughably pat coming from the dopey Sandler in the 21st century. Still, there remains something genuinely likeable in the new Deeds' easygoing nature (even if the character has an incongruous penchant for beating strangers senseless for very little reason). Thankfully, Deeds isn't quite as gormless as some of Sandler's earlier creations, allowing the film to retain at least a semblance of believability. Director Steven Brill (who also steered Little Nicky) and screenwriter Tim Herlihy (who has worked on most of Sandler's previous movies) use a slew of over-the-top comedy devices to tell Deeds' story, some of them quite effective, others too broad to get off the ground.
Wisely, the film takes some of the pressure off Sandler himself by employing a strong cast of supporting players. Ryder struggles to make much out of love interest Babe but Gallagher, Harris (from I Shot Andy Warhol), as Babe's TV boss, and Avari (The Mummy), as a more sympathetic corporate exec, produce good work in supporting comic roles. New York icons John McEnroe and the Reverend Al Sharpton make enjoyable cameo appearances. The film's most enjoyable performance by far, however, comes from Turturro, who plays Deeds' creepy but well meaning butler Emilio.
Prod cos: Columbia Pictures, New Line Cinema, Happy Madison, Out of the
Dist: Columbia (US), Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International.
Prods: Sid Ganis, Jack Giarraputo.
Exec prods: Adam Sandler, Joseph M Caracciolo.
Scr: Tim Herlihy.
DoP: Peter Lyons Collister.
Prod des: Perry Andelin Blake.
Ed: Jeff Gourson.
Music: Teddy Castellucci.
Main cast: Adam Sandler, Winona Ryder, Peter Gallagher, Jared Harris, Allen Covert, Erick Avari, John Turturro.