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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Adam Sandler has had an enormously successful career. He’s had, by my count, twelve films that have grossed over a hundred million dollars. He commands an enormous salary, has his own production studio, and even somehow makes his mediocre comedian friends (Allan Covert, Nick Swardson) famous just by being around them and occasionally casting them in bit parts. It would even be fair to say that Sandler is probably the most famous comedy actor since Eddie Murphy circa 1985. And yet, Sandler hasn’t really made me laugh since 1995’s Billy Madison.
Ok, so maybe that last sentence isn’t entirely accurate. I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed Adam Sandler’s other movies. I find Anger Management to be two-thirds of a pretty funny movie. Funny People has enormous second-act problems, but is generally entertaining, well-produced, and well-acted. Happy Gilmore has almost reached iconic status as a comedy film, particularly the Bob Barker cameo. But by and large Sandler has wasted his comedic talents on dreck like 2007’s Chuck and Larry, 2004’s 50 First Dates, and Sandler’s excuse to hang out in a cabin by the lake with his friends for two months of filming, Grown Ups,which was perhaps the worst mainstream film of 2010.
Billy Madison, however, is different. Sandler seems young and hungry, eager to prove himself. Despite his sophomoric antics, he’s also bizarrely charming. His patented “man-child” schtick hadn’t yet grown old, and Billy Madison’s subject matter is just ridiculous enough to let it slide anyway. In addition to a young Sandler, Madison also stars Norm Macdonald and Chris Farley, two Sandler regulars (until Farley’s untimely death, anyhow) who delight in supporting roles. A fantastic Bradley Whitford ably plays the villainous Eric. Queen of 1995 and Mrs. Pete Sampras Bridgette Wilson also stars as the love interest. While not a particularly challenging role, she works well with Sandler and the rest of the kooky cast.
Written by Adam Sandler and long-time writing partner Tim Herlihy, Billy Madison is the story of a grown man who gets the opportunity to go back to school and relive his academic days, from first grade through senior year in high school. Why? It doesn’t really matter except to serve the plot. But if he’s successful, Billy (played by Sandler) will get a chance to prove he’s not a moron as well as inherit his father’s chain of hotels. Because this is a movie, he’s successful of course. But Billy Madison is more hilarious when the film doesn’t serve the plot, offering up several great cut-away gags and non-sequiturs in the years before Seth Macfarlane and [Adult Swim] dragged random humor into the ground and killed it.
What I like about Billy Madison the most is probably the charm the film has. There are no pretensions here; Sandler gives it his annoying all, making up fake languages, mugging for the camera, and being irritating generally on purpose. In many ways, Billy Madison is a brilliant anti-comedy. The fact that it takes its plot so lightly, contains many hilarious, nonsensical scenarios, and skirts the line between irritatingly obnoxious and syrupy sweet at times is fantastic to me. I hate to be “that guy,” but in many ways I feel like I enjoy Billy Madison on a whole other level than it is meant to be enjoyed on. Here’s my favorite scene, and perhaps the most famous part of the movie:
In many ways, I feel Billy Madison is actually a pretty good movie. It’s definitely in a higher tier than some of the other films I’ve covered in this feature. Sandler may not really make me laugh anymore. Maybe success went to his head. Maybe his comedy is so insular that his schtick is just too tired at this point. Maybe he just doesn’t care. He’s got a billion dollars and a fantastic life; he can do whatever he wants. But there’ll always be Billy Madison.
Next up in 1995, the Judd Apatow-produced Ben Stiller-vehicle Heavy Weights.