Billy Madison, 1995.
Directed by Tamra Davis.
Starring Adam Sandler, Bradley Whitford, Bridgette Wilson, Norm Macdonald and Darren McGavin.
A man-child must pass grades 1-12 in 24 weeks to prove his worth and inherit his father’s company.
There are few things funnier than Adam Sandler hurtling dodge balls at children with all his might. It genuinely looks like child cruelty.
Sandler possesses an incredible ability to snap into a sudden anger, yelling coarsely in his Jewish rasp, provoked by the pettiest of things. The next CEO of his father’s company, Eric Gordon (Bradley Whitford), pulling faces at him across the dinner table; a nine year old arguing that Donkey Kong isn’t the best game ever made; a giant penguin that he suspects is sleeping with his girlfriend, Veronica Vaughn (Bridgette Wilson).
“It’s too hot for a penguin to be walking around here,” Billy Madison (Adam Sandler) says coyly to the giant penguin standing before him. When too drunk, or suffering from sunstroke, the penguin appears to taunt Billy through hallucination. The penguin shares the same idiocy and waddle of Madison.
It’s part of the character Sandler has established throughout his work. You can trace his development through Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy and Anger Management. He’s the dumb guy with a heart, and some serious issues with passive aggression.
Billy is an early prototype, more juvenile and chaotic than his later incarnations. His waddle appears to channel Chaplin’s tramp, his occasional spells of anarchy echo Groucho Marx. His face is in a permanent gurn, his chin protruding forward and his bottom lip overlapping his top. Sandler is effectively making fun of the mentally retarded.
Madison is 27 years old and will soon inherit his father’s hotel empire. But he’s an idiot who spends all his time jerking off to porno magazines and having gherkin races on the windows of his local burger joint. His father bribed him through school, even the spelling bee in 1st grade. He spelt rock ‘r-o-k’. “Ohh, the ‘C’ is silent,” he remembers after his father spells it out correctly for him.
The dastardly Gordon wants the company for himself, and Mr Madison is about to give it to him – unless Billy can pass all 12 grades in 24 weeks. That’s two weeks per grade.
He becomes closest to those in the third grade, probably because they share his mental age, in the class that Veronica teaches. She’s a fine piece of heinie. Initially, Veronica can’t stand him. He’s rude, immature, pathetic and only here because of his father’s money. Billy starts to win her over as he fosters friendships with the kids in her class, but he never performs any of the overblown, romantic gestures typical of Sandler’s later characters.
It’s hard to know what she sees in Billy. It’s strange how she only fully warms up to him after seeing his MASSIVE MANSION FULL OF BUTLERS AND MAIDS.
The film is rife with the supporting comedy characters that make Sandler’s work so enjoyable. It’s difficult to think of another comedian who can instil so much pantomime stupidity in the performers around him. Steve Buscemi plays a transvestite psychopath; Chris Farley an unhinged school bus driver; Principal Max Anderson is a horny ex-professional wrestler called the Revolting Blob. That gets points. Wrestling’s cool.
Billy Madison is far from Sandler’s best work, but it’s one of those films for which you are rarely not in the mood. Although having never seen it all the way through, picking up various bits here and there around friend’s houses when I was young, Billy Madison seems imbedded in my childhood. Most of Sandler’s films do. He was our Steve Martin - our Jerry Lewis – and none of the crappy films he’s made since can undo that.
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