Bad deeds

Film - Philip Kerr despairs at a particularly dumb remake of a Hollywood classic

Adam Sandler is living proof of a dumbed-down America. To watch him in any of the movie-stinkers in which he has appeared (The Waterboy, Big Daddy, Little Nicky, The Wedding Singer) is to experience a sense of astonishment that a person could stretch a quantum, sub-atomic talent such a long way. In any other walk of life, a veterinarian would surely have put Sandler to sleep, in imitation of his cinematic audience.

It seems almost inexplicable that Hollywood should continue to finance this prince of geeks, until one remembers what the poet John Ashbery once wrote about a tree, that "merely being there means something" - a poem that inspired Jerry Kosinski to write the novel Being There.

Kosinski's novel (made into a 1979 film of the same name starring the late Peter Sellers) is about a simpleton who becomes wealthy and famous and, but for the book's high-enjoyment factor, this might have functioned as a suitable leitmotiv for Sandler's career.

Comedian Fred Allen once said: "You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, put it in a flea's ass and still have room left over for three caraway seeds and an agent's heart." But I might also find some room therein for Adam Sandler's charisma. Casting this whiny-voiced, hatchet-faced, yarmulke-haired nerd in a $50m movie like Mr Deeds is enough to make you think that Hollywood is not Show Business but, more properly, Show No Mercy. You might even believe that the producers had cast Sandler for a bet, of a kind that might sound like this: "I'll show you how dumb Americans are. I'll bet I could remake Frank Capra's classic movie of 1936, Mr Deeds Goes to Town, with Adam Sandler, and still make money."

And it did make money. Because, even though Mr Deeds is so bad it is like watching some side-show stooge being exhibited in a cesspit that he himself has filled, Americans went to see the movie in sufficient numbers for it to make, so far, a profit of $40m.

Like Being There, Mr Deeds is the story of a simple guy who becomes wealthy and famous. Thanks to the Lottery, this now happens in the UK, and in America, on a fairly regular basis; but back in 1936, when Robert Riskin wrote his Academy Award-nominated screenplay (Capra's film won the award for Best Director), the Depression-era audiences were charmed and gratified by the novelty of Longfellow Deeds's neo-Marxian, "share the wealth" philosophy. Inheriting a fortune (now $40bn, then $20m), Deeds resolves to give it all away, despite the best efforts of a bunch of lawyers (just as popular now as they were then) and the deceptions of a dishonest female reporter, here played, to the hilt, by Winona ("Honest, Officer, I don't know how that got in my bag") Ryder.

Steven Brill directs this travesty in the same way that a bus conductor conducts a bus, and with no more inspiration than he brought to all the other turkeys featuring Sandler. To be fair, Frank Capra enjoyed many advantages not available to Brill. Quite apart from good taste, and an excellent ear for a script, as opposed to a nose for a fast buck, he also had two great stars in the persons of Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur. Just comparing Gary Cooper with Adam Sandler is like placing a work by Jakob Epstein alongside a "piece" by Gavin Turk. And not even the anomalous talents of Steve Buscemi and John Turturro can save this picture from Bernard Matthews and the turkey farm.

Capra followed up Deeds with Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which would have been called Mr Deeds Goes to Washington except that Cooper was unavailable, and the part went to Jimmy Stewart, who felt awkward about stepping into what were then Coop's much more illustrious shoes. Mr Smith was even more successful than the original, albeit just as intelligent. Back then, in 1939, an intelligent film was hardly unusual. So what is it that makes this new version so dumb?

Everything, but most egregiously, the lack of wit, of charm, and of well, common sense. Possibly the writer felt unequal to the task of depicting these human qualities, but it seems more likely that the producers suffer from Hollywood's instinctive distrust of a movie that is "clever", and ordered up a dumb one instead, with extra cheese. Whereas Coop's Deeds was close-lipped and polite, Sandler's depiction is hopelessly inarticulate. Where Coop was charming, Sandler is violent, mean-spirited and humourless. Where Coop's Deeds was an innocent, common-sense populist, Sandler's Deeds is a dim-witted Neanderthal. All of which leads me to suppose that if anyone ever gets round to making a picture called Mr Dope Goes to Washington, Adam Sandler will be a shoo-in to play the part of George W Bush.

Mr Deeds (12) is on general release

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