As the summer movie season kicks into high gear, let us consider the state of the Adam Sandler franchise. Unlike most of Hollywood's profitable series, Sandler's movies don't revolve around a specific storyline or recurring character, yet they're really all of the same conceptually-you've seen one, you've seen 'em all. Let's seetake a loud and raunchy, but nice-on-the-inside kid-at-heart and put him back in grade school (Billy Madison). Okay, now turn him into a golf prodigy (Happy Gilmore) or a jockstrap washer-turned-gridiron great (The Waterboy)-something sports-related will do the trick. Now, appeal to the females with Sandler as a schmaltzy, lovelorn, 80s-era wedding singer (The Wedding Singer). Better yet, make him a father (Big Daddy)! The most recent installment (Little Nicky, late in 1999) had Sandler as the son of Satan, and up until then, the Saturday Night Live alum was one of the fastest-rising cash cows in an increasingly opening-weekend obsessed, teenager-driven industry (and to many, an inexplicable phenomenon-remember the shock that out-of-it oldsters registered when The Waterboy rapidly raked in $100-million-plus in the fall of 1998?).
Still, as Sandler returns with his latest installment of a big dumb cut-up, there's a bit of desperation in the air. Although Sandler's previous successes all netted huge profits, with Little Nicky , Sandler's broad comedy tanked. Has Sandler's repetitiveness finally bored the millions of teens and college-aged fans that made him an unlikely cultural icon? At any rate, remaking the 1936 Frank Capra-Gary Cooper culture-clash classic Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is an astute choice for Sandler the comic careerist. Since the original Robert Riskin screenplay is the proverbial "fish out of water story," it would seem a simple and safe task for Sandler and his posse to re-embody the central character using his own well-honed mannerisms (writer Tim Herlihy and director Steven Brill are just two of several Sandler friends that often work on his movies).
As for the plot, this remake sticks fairly close to the original: billionaire Big Apple tycoon dies, and his greedy subordinates plan to take over his empire, but for the discovery of a long-forgotten heir from the sticks. The rube is summoned to the cruel megalopolis, is deceived by all those around him, and loses his inheritance, only to teach everyone about the virtues of the simple life at tale's end. It is foolish to compare these two movies on a qualitative level-Frank Capra may have often resorted to over-sentiment and preachiness, but his Mr. Deeds was a marvel of craftsmanship and a truly engaging story. This version, containing a few mildly amusing scenes, is basically a harmless retread of earlier Sandler pics; it has some charm, and certainly never aspires to be anything more than a PG-13 crowd-pleaser in the mold of Big Daddy, but Sandler's shtick is wearing mighty thin.
This contemporary Longfellow Deeds wants no part of the urbane high (adult) life; his value system is strictly sixth-grade, focusing on stuff like no cursing, be nice to your parents, be loyal, and settle problems with fistfights. Late in the film, Deeds implores a bunch of greedy stockholders to get in touch with their pre-adolescent selves, which encapsulates Sandler's modus operandi perfectly. The majority of the film's comic highlights are provided by John Turturro's "very sneaky" manservant Emilio-the talented character actor seems to be enjoying himself far more than anyone else in the film. Alas, for poor Winona Ryder, playing the tabloid-reporter gone-undercover role doesn't return the harried shoplifter to the comedic heights of her late 80s heyday-Beetlejuice and Heathers-and her romantic moments with Sandler are predictably inert. Winona seems to be trying, God bless her-but it's hard when your romantic partner displays only four regressive emotional expressions: stammer, giggle, shout, and pout.
Mr. Deeds will likely give his career a boost, but it's clear at this point that Adam Sandler is merely the most financially successful of what has become a long line of SNL performers that were far more suited to the sketch comedy format. Recall Sandler's popular "Weekend Update" Opera Man bits, of course, but also his Canteen Boy skits (featuring a freakishly sexualized version of his future film persona) and his borderline-subversive Iraqi Pete character that taunted Americans during the Gulf War buildup. Sandler's next release will, rumor has it, attempt to establish his credentials as a "serious" actor-it's a collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson of Boogie Nights and Magnolia fame-but, all things considered, a resurrection of Iraqi Pete for the fall SNL premiere would be more daring and relevant, not to mention funnier, than anything Adam Sandler can hope to do on the big screen.