Bright Lights, Big City

Urban sophistication fails to reach our hero's head.


directed by Steven Brill

with Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder

opens June 28 at Meridian, Metro, Oak Tree, and others

In Frank Capra’s beloved 1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, rural rube Gary Cooper inherits a fortune from a long-lost relation, then has his decency sorely tested in the big, bad city. His determination to give away his sudden wealth to those affected by the Great Depression astonishes the smart set—including cynical reporter Jean Arthur, whom he finally wins and takes back with him to Vermont for the simple rustic life. It’s typical Capra populism, now the subject of a bafflingly faithful remake with Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder, quite possibly the worst movie of 2002.

To receive his $40 billion windfall, pizzeria proprietor and aspiring greeting-card poet Deeds must—for the very first time—leave behind his freakish friends and idyllic hamlet, where most wedding announcements surely list only one set of parents. Using the hackneyed premise of an innocent hick in the cosmopolitan city, Deeds indulges in sophomoric potshots at the rich that make Caddyshack look like The Magnificent Ambersons. Tennis, French, opera, cloth-napkin restaurants, and The New Yorker—are these truly unknown outside the 212 area code? Meanwhile, our hero is baited and manipulated by an evil vulture capitalist (Peter Gallagher) who intends to break up Deeds’ newfound corporate empire (once the check is written and Deeds is sent safely home), putting 50,000 workers out of a job.

For a movie that supposedly celebrates working-class values, these potential victims of downsizing remain oddly invisible and hypothetical. Given the Enron crisis, Deeds might’ve achieved a certain populist topicality. Instead, Deeds bonds with his wacky, lisping Spanish valet (John Turturro, scoring a laugh or two) and dresses down a spoiled quarterback on the football team he’s inherited. To say the least, Sandler’s blue-collar solidarity appears misplaced; the actor will reportedly earn $20 million for this bomb (after pocketing the same sum for the disastrous Little Nicky). Who is he to rebuke underperforming, overpaid prima donnas?

Speaking of illogical, Deeds’ do-gooder yokelism—rescuing cats from fires, tipping extravagantly, handing Monets to bums, punching out snobs—eventually earns the love of Ryder’s character (here updated to a tabloid TV reporter dispatched by dastardly host Jared Harris). But like a preteen boy who doesn’t want to grow up, Sandler’s weirdly regressive, asexual screen presence makes for bizarrely unconvincing romance. Kisses with Ryder exhibit zero sexual chemistry. (Does she have cooties? Is he gay? We’re left to wonder.)

You sense that both hapless performers are glumly following their agents’ advice for the proverbial change of pace: Sandler to atone for Nicky and Ryder for . . . well, let’s just say it’s been a long, dry three years since Girl, Interrupted. Her work here makes the department-store video look like Oscar stuff, while Sandler’s old hair-trigger anger shtick from Happy Gilmore and The Wedding Singer is smothered in saccharine benevolence. We’d rather see the smirk than the saint, which is why Sandler’s frat-boy audience is likely losing its faith in the once irascible, likable comic.