I’m to blame for all of these Adam Sandler movies. Well, maybe not me specifically, but people of my ilk; white guys in their 30s. See, beginning with 1995’s Billy Madison, Sandler began truly growing his empire of poop jokes, funny voices and schmaltzy endings. It was catnip for teenage boys and that’s exactly what I was at the time.
Still, Billy Madison, along with his next movie Happy Gilmore, lingers in many minds as a significant step above his later movies like Mr. Deeds or You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. The argument is that those films have a certain crass mainstream nature that aims for lowest common denominator, where Sandler’s initial outings had an inspired lunacy that lifted the vulgarity to a greater level.
Well, nearly 20 years later, I’m going to take a step back into the movie that ramped up Sandler from another “Saturday Night Live” alum trying to have a film career into an institution that, though wavering, still exists today. I’m going to ask…was I nuts?
Billy Madison tells the story of the titular man-child, years before that became a trendy term. Sandler plays Billy, the doofish son of a hotel tycoon. Billy’s average day includes getting drunk with his buddies, lighting feces on fire and getting amped for the arrival of porno mags. One day his father decides to retire and, quite understandably, pops and his fellow businessmen don’t trust Billy to take the reigns. Leading the charge against Billy is Eric (Bradley Whitford), a snooty suck-up longing to be CEO himself.
After it’s revealed that Billy didn’t even complete his education without bribes from his father, a strange agreement is made. If Billy can make it through elementary, middle and high school over the course of a few months, he can then be eligible for his dad’s job. What follows is a series of high jinks, bullying and a half-dead clown.
I admit I didn’t get onto the Sandler bandwagon at its dawn, getting introduced to Billy Madison via endless cable repeats at various friends’ homes. Eventually, I would memorize the majority of this picture, absorbing its peculiar rhythms into my bones. For the majority of my teen years, if this movie was on television and I came across it, I sat down for its entirety. Quoting the bitterly angry Chris Farley bus-driver or shouting “O’Doyle rules!” was a part of my lexicon second only to the likes of Monty Python, Kevin Smith or “The Simpsons.”
Frankly, I have next to no clue what kind of quality Billy Madison contains. There’s a strong chance it’s as bad as most Sandler movies have come to be, with a self-satisfaction and obnoxiousness on full display. Just as I was the perfect demo for Garden State, Sandler’s foul-mouthed idiot came about when I was at my most foul-mouthed and idiot-ish. Hell, I had a Yasmine Bleeth poster on my walls. If I was going to love a movie at the time, the dumber and more prat-fall heavy the better.
I expect a handful of comedic nuggets and little else; hopefully not though.
It might be unfair or even incorrect to say this, but Adam Sandler is easily the worst thing about Billy Madison. His character is meant to be annoying, at least in the opening volley, and sure as fuck he is indeed that. Within seconds, Sandler is doing his baby-voice singing to himself thing about the importance of suntan lotion. His entire performance borders on grating, except in the scenes where he is the one being made uncomfortable, be it by his elementary school peers or his lust-driven housekeeper.
Yet, while Sandler’s acting is on the irksome side, he has to be given credit for co-writing the film; for that ridiculousness which largely disappeared from his more successful movies is ever-present and really funny. I remembered things like the penguin that would taunt Billy when he was smashed and the richness of Farley’s slightly demented bus-driver, who rants to himself about having to eat a banana for a snack. Nearly all of the one-liners by Billy’s best friends (Norm MacDonald and Mark Beltzman) had exited my mind, same for the aforementioned housekeeper and Steve Buscemi’s role as a psychotic old classmate of our lead. Each of these are played with the right amount of weirdness by director Tamra Davis, who also made the cult classic Half Baked and the cult-classic-in-a-bad-way Crossroads featuring Britney Spears.
The best friends, for example, aren’t portrayed as cruel; just joyous idiots who don’t know better. They kind of live in their own bubble alongside Billy, never interrupting the plot. Each one pops in for a one-liner here or there, like when MacDonald’s Frank is enjoying the lavish party being thrown for Billy first grade graduation. He stands there dumbfounded by the gathering and bluntly spurts out, “When I get graduated first grade, all my dad did was tell me to get a job.”
As for the housekeeper, played to the tilt by Theresa Merritt, she too gravitates the main plot and spits out her own thoughts. There’s a wonderfully odd beat where she yells at Billy to go fix himself up. Merritt stands there and states, “That boy’s a fine piece of work all right,” before shaking her head, laughing and declaring, “He’s a fine piece of ass though too.”
There are generic things in Billy Madison, primarily the romantic subplot with the bland Bridgette Wilson. It keeps sneaking in these strange elements to spice it up through out though. Two high school boys accidentally witness a grown man’s testiscles, both bewildered by how strange they are. There’s the principal obsessed with his cheating ex-wife, who opts to bring up his hatred for her at any chance afforded, as well as delivering the killer reply to Billy’s nonsensical response about the Industrial Revolution. Truly, it’s a piece of writing by Sandler and Tim Herlihy that just kills. Billy, all proud of himself for bluffing an answer that is tied to a book that was read to him in his first grade class, is swiftly and thoroughly put down by the principal who is judging the final act’s big educational decathlon. The principal proclaims, “Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At not point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.
Plus, Bradley Whitford’s Eric is a terrifically entertaining douche, snidely laughing after what he deems are clever comebacks, whom is only to be topped by Christopher McDonald’s Shooter McGavin in Sandler’s Happy Gilmore. That is for another time though.
Sandler may have lost his comedic edge at some juncture; he once used it to excellent effect.