(On Cable TV, January 2015) I may be off to lunch here given my lack of familiarity with the Adam Sandler oeuvre, but it seems to me that Mr. Deeds marks a bit of a transition between the violent man-child persona of Sandler’s early movies (most notably Billy Madison) and the more good-natured family-man persona of latter films (most notably the Grown-Ups series). This is not, obviously, a comment on increasing or decreasing quality of his movies – just an entirely predictable evolution from a young comic’s persona to a middle-aged actor’s most appropriate roles. Sandler still gets to assault someone (a fake mugging), but he spends most of the film as a likable small-town pizzeria-owner abruptly thrust in the cutthroat world of Manhattan finances after an unlikely inheritance. The plot mechanics are standard and the jokes are lame, but there are occasional laughs to be found in the details and the character work. Winona Ryder is at her peak-cute moment as the love interest, but John Turturro turns in much funnier material as a supporting character who then becomes far more important to the plot’s conclusion. Still, this isn’t even near close to middle-brow entertainment: The characters act in ways that make no sense away from dumb comedies or kids shows, while elements of the plot are brutally stupid. I suppose I’d feel outraged about this being a remake of a well-liked Gary Cooper film if I have a deeper knowledge of historical cinemas, but in the meantime I can just say that Mr. Deeds isn’t particularly good on its own merits.
(On TV, June 2013) Barton Fink’s reputation as a mystifying piece of cinema precedes it by years, and after watching the film I’m no wiser than anyone else in trying to explain what I’ve just seen. It starts simply enough, as a New York playwright moves to Los Angeles to write scripts for Hollywood. The initial satire of the industry can be amusing at times. But then the film moves in another direction entirely with a run-down hotel, a threatening next-door neighbor, a brutal murder, more symbolism than anyone can use, and enough references to other things that one can profitably mine the film for endless analysis. John Turturro is compelling as the title character, while John Goodman is surprisingly menacing as his neighbor/id. What Barton Fink does not contain, however, is a simply digestible experience: It’s a hermetic film that seemingly delights in throwing off its audience and multiplying contradictory interpretations. As such, it’s kind of fun: The Coen Brothers’ skill in putting together the film mean that individual scenes are compelling to watch, even as it’s maddening to piece them together in a coherent whole.