Billy Madison hit theaters in 1995, which means that Adam Sandler’s starring vehicle formula has been going strong for over fifteen years. Making a name for himself on Saturday Night Live at the tail end of one of the great runs of the show, Sandler’s manic energy and comic voices turned him into a breakout talent. And though he had appeared in a number of movies by that point, Billy Madison was his first starring vehicle – which did “eh” business at the box office. By 1996’s Happy Gilmore his numbers had improved some, but the one-two punch of The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy didn’t come until 1998. As such there’s an innocence and a strangeness to these earlier efforts that are both familiar and different than the star Sandler became. The formula was there: Man-child grows up, finds love. Our reviews of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore follow after the jump.
Sandler stars as the titular Billy in Billy Madison. It was directed by Tamra Davis – who never became a part of the Sandler staple – but it was written by Sandler and Tim Herilhy so it has that weird SNL energy of Sandler’s best sketches. Sandler plays the son of a hotel tycoon (Darren McGavin) who wants to hand over the company to him, but thinks he’s an idiot. Madison protests, only to find out that his father bribed Billy’s way through school. Billy says he will go through each grade in two weeks to prove he’s got the stuff, and wants to defeat Eric Gordon (Bradley Whitford), who’s an asshole and in line to take over.
This gives Sandler a chance to play off of children, but the cuteness is softened by his cloddish behavior. Given a chance to play dodgeball, Madison mops the floor with the children, and it’s a winning moment because Sandler fully invests in playing a dick. And in proving that he likes kids, he does so in one of the great “what the hell?” scenes in Sandler’s career. It’s a solid undercutting of the formula.
And what stands out is the weirdness, from the imaginary penguin, to Steve Buscemi’s role as a stalker, to Chris Farley’s relatively amusing bus driver. The love interest is Bridgette Wilson, easily one of the weakest actresses to work as a Sandler love interest, but not unappealing in a Playboy sort of way. Because this is early Sandler, this feels like the film of his I’ve heard most quoted – from “Hey Carl, how’s it going?” to a number of the film’s money lines, this one still plays, and benefits from a 90 minute running time. It doesn’t mess around.
Happy Gilmore may be the better movie in terms of structure, but it’s still in the formula. Happy (Sandler) is a would-be Hockey player who can’t keep a job. When he finds out his grandmother (Frances Bay) is evicted from her home, he also finds out that he can hit the hell out of a golf ball, so he goes to an amateur event that gets him on the professional tour. There he enrages Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald), the likely winner of the big trophy this year. Happy attracts a young, beer-loving crowd, which is at odds with the more stodgy nature of the sport.
Here the love interest is Julie Bowen, and the film has some sweet moments with her. This one is decidedly more grounded, but that doesn’t mean that Carl Weathers can’t play an insane golf coach with a wooden hand, and an alligator eyeball. This one has a strong narrative drive (pun? Sure), and a simple goal. The weird cameo here is Ben Stiller as an insane orderly at an old folks home, and it also features small roles by Richard Kiel and Joe Flaherty.
These are the two films that are probably best for those who’ve come late to Sandler, who’s now just putting out a picture or two a year in a very lazy fashion that often revolve around casting his friends and work as often as they don’t. The films – like Sandler – are often a bit bloated and though sometimes have moments, but are just as likely to settle for some new twist on the man-child formula that he worked well here. There’s a woman, a lesson, a hurdle, and that’s about it. Here, though, Sandler was hungry and trying really hard. Since then it’s harder to love what he’s been up to – at least when he’s not working with an A-list director. Still, these are still very funny.
Universal’s Blu-rays present both in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 surround. The audio is fine, but front and center, while the picture quality upgrade is marginal. Though I’m happy to have both on Blu-ray, I can’t say that these are films that need Blu-ray to be seen. Billy Madison comes with a commentary by director Tamra Davis and it’s nice and polite. Also included are six deleted scenes (33 min.) and outtakes (4 min.). Happy Gilmore comes with six deleted scenes (19 min.) and outtakes (5 min.).