Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company — Happy Madison Productions — as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years, Sandler has slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of his big-budget studio comedies, some of which seem to be thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will Ben Sears retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join him and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.
One of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut novels is 1965’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, wherein an obscenely rich man begins giving his money away and the powers that be try to stop him by declaring him legally insane. After all, what sane man wouldn’t dream of swimming in more cash than he’ll ever need in a single lifetime? Vonnegut’s gift for black humor helped to paint a satirical look at a world in which money was not just the best status symbol but the only one. Vonnegut took what Frank Capra had hinted at in the final act of 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and turned it on its head. And in 2002, Steven Brill and Happy Madison — with a script by Tim Herlihy — updated Capra’s classic by giving it the Adam Sandler treatment.
Although there are plenty of similarities in plot and character, Mr. Deeds places too much stock in making Sandler’s Longfellow Deeds the most saintly human being on the planet. Here is a man so kind he literally carries an old man across the street. Gary Cooper played the titular role for Capra, and while he and Sandler share a penchant for punching men in the face, Cooper wasn’t afraid to be a little mean. Consider the scene in Capra’s version where Deeds refers to a begging man as a moocher after arriving at his home to admonish Deeds for squandering his wealth. Brill’s version cuts this scene out entirely.
“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” That iconic line may have come from a different Frank Capra classic than the one we’re discussing today, but Sandler seems to have updated the mantra for this film: “Every time a crowd of people gather in a room, an Average Joe gets an applause.” There are more cheering applause breaks throughout Mr. Deeds than I can ever remember witnessing in person in my lifetime. It’s Sandler’s way of showing us that even more of the western world has been awoken to the glowing virtuosity that is Longfellow Deeds. But in reality, we already know he’s going to come out on top, get the girl and retain his dignity — not that there was much doubt. We’re never really given a sense as to what Deeds thinks of his vast inheritance and what it implies, but then again, I don’t expect audiences were flocking to the film to witness how Adam Sandler would handle a crisis of conscience.
Mr. Deeds represents a clear demarcation point for Sandler’s career, as it marks his first foray into the romantic-comedy genre under the Happy Madison banner; The Wedding Singer was released before the production company was formed. From here forward, we’ll largely go down one of two different avenues — with the occasional aberration — in Sandler’s films: the high-concept rom-com or the lowbrow outright comedy. In a strange way, Sandler makes sense as a rom-com leading man: He’s charming and, in the right hands, can be seen as sympathetic while still retaining his dirtbag tendencies. Paul Thomas Anderson exploited him to great effect later in 2002 in Punch Drunk Love.
Perhaps Sandler grew tired of his oddball characters with the unusual voices; Mr. Deeds is, after all, his first feature after the financial and critical disaster that was Little Nicky. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to play it straight and show the world you’ve got genuine comedic chops. The problem is that, in his efforts to portray an everyman, Sandler skews so far in that direction that I wouldn’t be surprised if a deleted scene exists in which Deeds befriends the Pope.
There’s an old screenwriting term called “Save the Cat” — coined as shorthand for a scene in which the audience is won over to the hero’s side as he, for example, saves a cat in peril. In Mr. Deeds, Sandler literally saves not just one cat, but seven.
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: Your brain, and the credits, may be telling you that John McEnroe has an appearance in the middle of the film as a party animal bad-boy, but his performance has me convinced that it’s actually a cyborg.
- Just Go With It: The Happy Madison Promise. In the spirit of transparency, this one is tough. The HM touches in the script aren’t especially glaring and felt like there could be some universe where they could exist in a film from a different production company. There is, however, an offhanded comment early on about how nobody in Deeds’s hometown has ever left, and that struck me as particularly odd. Mr. Sandler: If you’re reading this, I’d love to sit down with you and dig through your understanding of small-town middle America.
- Fart Joke Counter: None! Kudos to Brill and company for cutting out all those fart jokes from the Capra version.
- Winona Ryder is in this movie too! I did not remark on her performance or her chemistry with Sandler because neither of those things really exist.
- Adam Sandler’s attempt at a New England accent is to sprinkle in a “wicked” throughout the occasional sentence.
- NEXT TIME: The Master of Disguise. Ugh.