Adam Sandler became famous thanks to Saturday Night Live, in which he often played an angry guy who spoke in strange voices. People found this funny. Hollywood wondered whether they would pay for it. He had a small role in the underrated Airheads, then nailed his first starring role with Happy Gilmore.
Unfortunately we only learned in retrospect that his two best comedies were his first two. I recently decided to give some of his other earlier films a shot to see if my hazy recollections of disappointment were true.
The title could perhaps be a spoiler, but here we go, six or so hours with the man who has never tried and doesn’t care who knows it.
Before we examine the film called Billy Madison, the first film in which Adam Sandler received top billing, let’s play an imagination game.
Imagine this; It is 1995. You are an alien from another planet. This is your first visit to earth. Due to the nature of your being, you are only able to think logically. You ask someone to explain the human concept of ‘funny’. That person puts in a VHS tape (1995 remember) of Billy Madison. The film begins…
Within five minutes we can acknowledge this much; Billy Madison is a human being near 30 years of age. He hangs about with human beings of similar vintage. He appears of below average intelligence, lacking in basic comportment skills, and bereft of social skills.
Billy gets blind drunk and hallucinates that he sees a penguin. Actually he hallucinates seeing a man in a tacky penguin suit. He pursues the penguin in a golf cart. The penguin runs away. No-one else sees the penguin, because the penguin is Billy’s hallucination.
You are an alien. You think, “is this funny?”
Billy’s father is a wealthy man who dresses well, lives in a fine house and has business dealings with other well dressed men in said fine house. Billy’s father laments his son’s ways, and informs him that he is to pass the management of the family company to another person named Eric. Eric is a separate person from Billy and his friends.
You are an alien. You think, that seems like common sense. Who would pass the management on to someone who clearly lacks the knowledge, skills and common sense to run a multi-million dollar company?
In frustration and desperation Billy – the 30ish learning impaired loser – proposed a challenge. If he can pass all ten grades of schooling in 20 weeks, he will re-earn Father’s trust and assume management of the family company.
You are an alien. You think, well that seems silly. He is obviously underqualified. Even assuming he can pass all ten grades in 20 weeks, that still makes him a moron with minimal qualifications. Any sensible father would say “nice try, where was this effort two decades ago?”
The Father agrees, much to the chagrin of Eric, the man who would assume management, who makes it evident that he is not a nice person.
You are an alien. You think, well he doesn’t have to be nice, just efficient and sensible.
Miscellaneous people act strange. An old black woman makes frequent lewd comments suggesting her sexual availability to Billy. Other people say silly things and/or act in silly ways.
You are an alien. You think, is this funny?
Billy commences school. Grade 1 is initially a challenge – due to his inhibited learning capacity and diminished attention span.
You are an alien. You think, this should be a concern as it is some decades since his brain should have reached basic maturity. Understanding simple concepts and equations should be extremely simple.
Billy has a lavish party after each graduation, during which he and his friends do more ridiculous things.
You are an alien. You think, it seems logical to celebrate success in some fashion.
Billy reaches Grade 3. It seems that in this grade the 8 or 9 year olds are his appropriate peer group. Billy makes fart jokes and other infantile jokes. He belittles a small child with a speech impediment. His extremely attractive teacher Miss Vaughn (Bridgette Wilson) pulls him aside, berates him, says she wants him out and has no respect nor time for Billy and his stupid antics.
You are an alien. You think, smart lady. This man is making a mockery of the education process with the aim of placing himself in a position that he does not deserve.
Miscellaneous Round: The school principal comes on to Billy. A clown falls at a party. Everyone laughs. The clown bleeds. Billy’s bedroom is furnished as an 8 year old’s would be. A man dresses as a woman. One of Billy’s friends thinks he/she is hot.
You are an alien. You think, is this funny?
Billy progress beyond Grade 3. The teenagers in other grades assume Billy an idiot. They do not respect Billy. They find him tragically amusing. Billy does not understand this. Billy does not understand a lot of things.
You are an alien. You think, that sounds appropriate. These teenagers are finding their way and moving towards adulthood. It seems ridiculous that a grown man with all of the opportunities and privilege afforded Billy Madison should be so wilfully simple and socially inept.
Billy’s Grade 3 teacher from a few weeks ago, Miss Vaughn is suddenly sorry for Billy. She offers to be his tutor, and for some reason, his lover.
You are an alien. You think, where’s the consistency love? Did you just find out that Billy is the heir to a whacking great hotel chain? What else would make you betray your principles so very quickly? Also – humans are stupid.
Billy Madison the mentally challenged man, assisted by the attractive Grade 3 teacher with flexible ethics and a willingness to sleep with a mentally challenged alcoholic with huge mood swings, wins control of a major corporate entity thanks to a high school equivalent contest. In doing so he bests a far more valid applicant, albeit one with a flawed moral compass.
You are an alien. You think, whaaaaattttt?
Then, everyone kisses. Billy, Miss Vaughn, Billy’s friends, the principal, the old black woman, assorted strange people, even the penguin.
You are an alien. You think, is EVERYONE in this movie in Grade 3.
I am a guy with a fairly well developed sense of humour, capable and willing to suspend logic and overlook childishness and silliness if laughter is the end goal. Furthermore, I am quite happy to think abstractly and to embrace ludicrous behaviours and concepts if it elicits the feeling of pleasure through the release of endorphins.
I am not an alien. I think, what level of stupid finds any of this remotely amusing or worthy of merit.
My son is 9. The same age as Billy Madison was when he found the most comfort in this film. My son does not yet know why, but he finds it hilarious when people kiss in film and on TV. He giggles like an idiot. He would seem to be the appropriate age to find this funny.
If he ever watches Billy Madison, it will because I failed as a parent to protect him.
Final Rating – 4 / 10. If there was a god, Sandler’s film career would end here.
But it doesn’t.
If Adam Sandler is anything it is consistent. Consistently lazy. In The Waterboy nothing changes. He remains a socially awkward person with intellectual challenges and a speech impediment. He surrounds himself with oddball characters who spout nonsensical gibberish but eventually come around to loving him, and finds a vaguely attractive woman to come to the conclusion that he is in fact an especially worthy partner, even though this flies in the face of all common sense.
Sandler is Bobby Bouchet the simple water loving young man who only wants to help. In this case ‘help’ means provide college football teams with an abundant and available supply of cold refreshing H2O.
A twist of stupid has the oft belittled Bobby lash out at his antagoniser, and in doing so he puts a hefty football player on his back. The meek mannered coach (Henry Winkler) has a brainwave and puts Bouchet on the squad. After unhilarious early growing pains, Bouchet not only becomes a star but the backbone of a squad suddenly threatening the title.
I wanted to laugh at the over-protective mother’s (Kathy Bates) helicopter parenting, but it was unmemorable and repetitive despite her best efforts. I wanted to appreciate the constant insinuations that everyone in America’s Deep South is stuck in the 1800s, inbred, or just plain dumb, but none of the jokes hit home as anything other than desperate and/or lazy. Usually both.
So what does this leave us? We laugh at the fact a mule lives in Bobby’s house? That he eats baby alligators whole? That one character with many lines of dialogue is entirely unintelligible throughout?
I mean I am out of ideas here… but at least I can admit I am out of ideas, Sandler steadfastly refuses to, despite the fact that it is decades since he had a comedy worth laughing at.
Final Rating – 5.5 / 10. A socially awkward guy with an accent shouldn’t be enough on its own, Sandler proves that. Unfortunately it took a decade for society to realise.
The fact that Big Daddy is undoubtedly the ‘best’ available in this Adam Sandler guided non-stop tour to mediocrity in an indictment on his effort levels in selecting scripts.
Once again Sandler is a thirty year old adult whose own father accuses him of “acting like six”, although at least this time his character has skills and knowledge at his disposal. He just yet agains declines to use them.
He is Sonny Koufax, a trained lawyer who instead of practising is riding the wave generated by a trumped up financial settlement from years past. Sonny lives in another teenage boy’s dream, a spacious split level industrial loft full of kid friendly stuff.
While all around him have grown and matured, Sonny zealously covets his youth. Instead of finding work that would utilise his skills, Sonny works one day a fortnight in a tollbooth.
His male friends are bemused at his stubborn immaturity. Females are scornful. Sonny’s own girlfriend threatens to leave him.
All should change upon the arrival of five year old Julian, the son of Sonny’s former roommate whose mother has just passed.
All should change, but it doesn’t. In one of those ‘Adam Sandler Film Spur of the Moment’ head scratching decisions, Sonny pretends to be his roommate and agrees to take on parenting responsibilities for young Julian, the logic being that this will convince his girlfriend of his adult bona fides.
But of course Sonny is a terrible parent. After a life of putting newspaper over things instead of fixing them, Sonny sees no reason to change now. Julian gets to do whatever he wants to do and nothing he doesn’t. While this sounds like heaven to a five year old, it’s a sure fire recipe for a future as a Justin Bieber type, only without the fame, money and females.
Leila (Joey Lauren Adams) is a good responsible young lawyer striving to push her career forward. Somehow she finds Sonny’s shonky patently and putting a child’s future in peril as admirable and not criminal, and his juvenile antics as alluring and not pathetic. She isn’t concerned that this man who treats good news, bad news and thoughts of responsibility with the same bemused crooked smile.
Sometimes it takes just a little fraudulent misrepresentation to become a good man and upstanding citizen… Apparently.
So why the ‘almost worthwhile’ 6.5? Because despite the flawed logic and persistent jokes that come at the expense of a woman who once worked at Hooters, Big Daddy finds some genuinely emotive moments, even if they are born of corrupt origins.
Big Daddy nearly succeeds because despite his character’s protestations, Adam Sandler at least acknowledges that he must eventually grow up. You never get the impression that it will hold – look at Sandler now – but at least he verbalises what everyone should understand.
Final Rating – 6.5 / 10. Sandler is always a big kid. Here he is working with his peers.
Adam Sandler has made a career out of our jealousy. As males we wish we could remain carefree, harmlessly irresponsible, not reliant on money and simultaneously liked by everyone. And still manage to nail the most attractive woman in your orbit at any time. Females love laughing at the fallabilities and weaknesses that they otherwise despise in their own man. They watch on assured that ‘they could change him’, and if not, they only have to put up with him for ninety minutes per engagement.
Adam Sandler has made a career of being adorably bad at things while smiling vacantly. He isn’t especially funny. He isn’t savvy about anything beyond things adolescents find amusing. He hasn’t made a truly decent film since Happy Gilmore, with everything since being pale imitations of himself.
Yet despite his lazy methods, lack of effort and reliance on Hollywood’s – and the audiences’ – comfort with familiar warm inertia, he has made many, many millions, while almost all of the rest of us sneer and continue working hard on the road to nowhere special.
Who is the real genius here?
I just made myself very sad…