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It’s minus-390 Dow Jones Industrials time. Do you know where your children are? What the offspring have been up to isn’t what you think. While Gary Winnick and Bernard Ebbers have been driving the economy into the abyss, young filmgoers have been flocking to one of American culture’s most pointed essays on the tension between government and corporate greed: In “Mr. Deeds,” comic Adam Sandler has updated Frank Capra’s 1936 financial fable “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” for the Enron years. But in recent days, Sandler’s hit has begun to look less like a parable for adolescents than a prequel — the setup to an even more extraordinary economic fantasy, “Mr. Bush Takes the Market to Task.” At first glance, Sandler has left Capra’s essential storyline intact. A small-town guy, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper in the original, Sandler in the remake) inherits the fortune left by a financier-uncle. So Deeds ventures into the heart of American capitalism to claim it. In both films, Deeds’ trip to New York provides encounters with savvy servants and big-city cynics. Yet Deeds must finally fight for control of his uncle’s assets: The struggle pits Deeds, the good-hearted local businessman, against schemer Charles Cedar, the symbol of Wall Street gone wrong. For all their laughs, each film focuses on our country’s most serious undertaking: daily reconciliation of the two glaringly inconsistent values that are fundamental to American government, capitalism and democracy. Significantly, each “Deeds” addresses that balancing process at the very moment a breakdown of equilibrium is creating economic chaos. As Capra’s film begins, a wealthy capitalist — Deeds’ uncle — careens out of control, producing the “crash” that jeopardizes a substantial chunk of the nation’s assets. In Sandler’s opening scenes, Deeds’ legator reaches the world’s highest peak, only to be frozen there: “Those numbers mean nothing to me,” the Wall Street wizard has shouted as he raced to the pinnacle — a double-edged speech aimed at the market mavericks of the late ’90s. The battle for Deeds’ inheritance — literally and figuratively the assets available to a new generation — offers the filmmakers an ideal forum to evaluate competing economic attitudes: Who is the proper steward of American capital? In the ensuing contest between unrestricted income production and egalitarianism (or, if not real equality, then at least the substantive changes that will redistribute the assets a bit more equitably), Deeds’ cause collapses. Cedar’s deep pockets produce the media distortions and insider deals that Deeds, the common man, simply can’t counter. Deeds’ looming defeat offers a moment of economic realism that exposes the Republic’s dirtiest little secret: Capitalism and equality aren’t reconcilable. Wealth, whether it buys political influence, private intimidation or high-profile PR, always wins. Nonetheless, Hollywood is Hollywood. So when only a miracle will save Deeds, the miraculous occurs. But the happy ending — with Deeds recognized as embodying the perfect mix of profit-taking and public interest — exposes the films as deeply ideological tracts. Neither Sandler nor Capra will allow audiences to imagine that our economic problems aren’t resolvable within the existing system. Instead, the films paper over the chasm between profit and public interest by evoking our most fundamental illusion, the myth of a uniquely Americancapitalism. That mythology has become George W. Bush’s mantra. American capitalism rejects any suggestion that the market is inherently predatory; that, in economic analyst Robert Kuttner’s phrase, “It’s the barrel that’s rotten.” There is no bad capitalism in either Deeds’ or W’s world; there are just bad capitalists — opportunists who have surrendered to what the president calls “moral confusion and relativism.” Grasping CEOs and creative accountants have simply forgotten the true purposes of capitalism — not the generation of more wealth, but the creation of work (“Because of him, 50,000 people have jobs,” Sandler’s Deeds says in praise of his uncle); the production of a wide range of consumables (“Here’s your pizza, just the way you like it, with peanut butter and Cocoa Puffs,” Deeds tells a customer); and the fulfillment of our most personal dreams. (“When I was a kid, I dreamed about helping people. Money was the last thing I imagined,” Deeds argues, urging greedy stockholders to remember the sixth-graders they used to be.) Mainstream culture has always located the myth of American capitalism in the idealized small town, with its beneficent, hard-working middle class. Mayberry, Carvel and “a place called Hope” are the best-loved of our idylls. But they are, and have always been, fabrications. Capra’s film depicted a harmonious mill town unaffected by the striving and scapegoating of the Great Depression; Sandler’s Mandrake Falls denies the fate of most modern communities: destitute farmers, poisoned groundwater and family businesses undone by Wal-Mart. Ultimately, neither Capra nor Sandler can suppress the cracks in the construct. Capra perfectly understood the repression, the limited opportunities and the desperation that infect small-town life; “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) continues to be the darkest portrait ever painted of the American community. “Meet John Doe” (1941) ends in unrelieved bitterness when heartland values are exposed as mob mentality. Sixty years later, the rage and resentment of a terrified middle class emerges in Sandler’s irrational violence and mindless cruelty: “Get a job,” Sandler’s Deeds screams at the mugger he has beaten into insensibility — a genuinely jarring scene in a film that ostensibly addresses the average American’s sensitivity to the hardship that economic chaos has inflicted on individuals. But despite their shared viewpoint — that a glitch in the normally sustainable balance between capitalism and democracy had created havoc — the “Deeds” films feature one genuinely startling dissimilarity. Capra believed that law was the ultimate mediator between profit-taking and the common good. And Capra also believed that law had inadequately responded to the nation’s financial crisis. Appropriately, the villainous Cedar is a lawyer who has sold his soul to Wall Street; when Deeds tries to address the national crisis by redistributing his own wealth, Cedar uses law to stop him. Today, Capra’s courtroom resolution — a judicial endorsement of extraordinary responses to extraordinary need — is recognizable as a post- Schecter Poultrypitch for judges to accept progressive economic remedies. That widely shared sentiment would eventually produce the Supreme Court’s famous “switch in time that saved nine.” But if Capra’s “Deeds” presumes that courts will try, and fail, and try again to achieve the nation’s most essential equilibrium, Sandler leaves the maintenance of economic stasis to Kenneth Lay. Sandler’s “Mr. Deeds” offers an America that has given itself up to business interests — a dystopia, as described by economics historian Kevin Phillips, where the financial market has become the “premier institution of American governance.” Every element of Sandler’s narrative has a market context. The oily Cedar, a CEO, spurs Deeds to action with a stock-manipulation scheme: Cedar will sell off the companies within Deeds’ conglomerate and walk away with enormous profits. When Deeds finally challenges Cedar, the showdown takes place in a stockholders meeting, and the contest turns on the ownership of shares. More disturbingly, Cedar’s comeuppance — his wanton destructiveness and appalling greed result in no more than a loss of capital — reflects the vague ethical environment surrounding Wall Street’s real-life villains: Cedar has acted in a world where law doesn’t exist, and the market offers no measure of conduct but profitability. Yet Sandler’s fable is less disturbing in its statements about wealth than in its lessons about worth. In the new “Deeds,” no aspect of life has meaning other than as a commodity. Sandler’s walk-on celebrities — John McEnroe and Al Sharpton — hawk their identities; Deeds’ good impulses tout their price tags — $20,000 for an anniversary gift, a billion dollars as a measure of friendship; and personal satisfaction yields a profit. Capra’s protagonist crafts poems for pleasure, but Sandler’s Deeds writes only in hope of selling doggerel to greeting card companies: The hero’s richest personal triumph comes when his most intimate verse, a love poem, becomes a global best-seller for Hallmark. Nor has any film ever been quite so overt about commercial consumption as an end. In a Hollywood enamored by product placements, Deeds transforms the consumption of nationally known brands into a narrative element: “It just wasn’t as good, was it?” Deeds, the proponent of pleasure through products, says when a fast-food initiate confesses that he has tried to duplicate Wendy’s milkshakes at home. But Deeds is also a new kind of hero — not a protagonist who does good and incidentally has neat stuff — but a protagonist whose good works consist entirely of buying: Capra’s Deeds invested his fortune in unemployed Americans who wanted a new start; Sandler’s character finally uses his windfall to buy sports cars for his friends. Sandler’s menace is that he doesn’t look like the agent of a market-dominated new world. But his film’s irony-laden tagline may be the year’s most truthful advertising: “Don’t let the fancy clothes [in Sandler's case, jeans and an oversized shirt] fool you.” The men who want to define our futures according to market values have swapped silk hats and morning coats for running shoes and ranch attire. Their targets are no longer the audiences of “Moneyline.” Critics have characterized Sandler’s hit as fodder for 12-year-olds. It is. And considering who will be managing the market when our retirement plans vest, that makes “Mr. Deeds” the most dangerous film in America. Terry Diggs teaches courses on law and film at San Francisco’s Hastings and Golden Gate University law schools. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

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