John McEnroe, the tennis star turned TV game-show host, makes an appearance midway through "Mr. Deeds," and I, for one, was pathetically grateful to see him. Not because he has any business being in a movie — he gives the impression of a wooden man undergoing some particularly hideous torture — but because compared to him, Adam Sandler almost looks like an actor. Almost.
Sandler, in "Mr. Deeds," plays the same character he always plays: a dead-eyed, none-too-bright Everyschlump dressed in baggy pants and tired T-shirts. The film is a loose, dopey remake of Frank Capra's 1936 comedy "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," in which Gary Cooper played a small-town nice guy who inherits a fortune. Let us hope there is some cushioning in Capra's and Cooper's graves this week, for the inevitable rolling.
As in the original, Sandler's Longfellow Deeds is a resident of the picture-perfect town of Mandrake Falls, where he composes dreadful greeting-card verse (and, in a new-millennium update, runs a pizzeria). Upon learning that he has inherited $40 million from a long-lost relation, Deeds moves to New York, where he is stalked by tabloid reporter Babe Bennett (Winona Ryder, in bombshell mode). Fish-out-of-water humor and general heartwarming ensues, in Capra's version. Here, well ... at least the pizza looks tasty.
As an actor, Sandler has an uncanny non-presence — he's able to talk, in his oddly pinched voice, without moving the rest of his face. (Somebody should cast him in a sci-fi film, as some sort of android.) He shuffles through "Mr. Deeds" in a likable but disinterested way, at times barely seeming to register that other actors are present. Ryder, by contrast, pours a great deal of fast-talking enthusiasm into her role, but she's got nothing to bounce off. Apparently nobody warned her that trying too hard, in a movie like this, sometimes can just look silly.
Steven Brill, who previously directed Sandler in "Little Nicky," directs in a style that can only be called lackadaisical; edits are awkward and the whole film has the look of a cheap TV movie. "Mr. Deeds" is supposed to be a celebration of the goodness of regular people (all the New Yorkers, except for the servants, are money-grubbing and nasty), but really it's nothing more than a money maker for the filmmakers and a pointless star vehicle for Sandler. He sings into a banana, trips over things and gets hit by tennis balls, all with the same disengagement.
But "Mr. Deeds" is not entirely without pleasures, tiny as they may be. Watch for a bug-eyed cameo by an uncredited Steve Buscemi. And John Turturro, as a slippery butler with a foot fetish, gives a performance that's so loose he's practically unhinged. He steals every scene, giving a sibilant swing to lines like, "The hideousness of that foot will haunt my dreams forever." May his paycheck be huge.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.