Adam Sandler is one of the last true movie stars. Tellingly, he’s essentially the only über-successful actor in contemporary Hollywood to never take a role in a film franchise – because, just like the Hollywood stars of yore, he is the franchise. He produces almost all his movies, and has a regular caravan of co-creators (like director Dennis Dugan) and co-stars (like Rob Schneider, who’s been in 12 Sandler movies playing 12 different offensive stereotypes) who follow him from project to project. To celebrate today’s release of Just Go With It, the 22nd film Sandler’s headlined since 1995, we went back to where it all began: Billy Madison, the story of a man-boy who decided to go back to school, back to school, to prove to his dad that he’s not a fool.
Darren Franich: When I was a kid, I knew every line of dialogue from Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. I could do near-perfect imitations of Adam Sandler’s various voices. His Opera Man-esque caveman-baby talk: “So sorry to interrupt! Pro-ceeeed… ” His petulant growl: “You know something? YOU SUCK!” His sing-song warbling: “Ohh, Veronica Vaughn. Sooo hot, sooo hot, want to touch the heiny!” In junior high, my group of friends could have whole conversations composed purely of Adam Sandler dialogue. So I really, really, really wanted to enjoy watching Billy Madison this week. And I was really sad that, in the end, I could count the number of times I laughed on one hand, and three of those laughs were because of Steve Buscemi.
Keith Staskiewicz: The good comparison point here is Pee-wee Herman, who also had his own variety of tones – from the sing-song-y to the adenoidal growl – and was also essentially an overgrown kid. But where Pee-wee was charming and loveable, Billy’s a lot more abrasive. Between this and Ace Ventura, it really paints an interesting picture of what comedy was like in the mid-’90s: Grown men talking either out of their butts or like a 10-month-old who woke up that morning to find he’s now 30.
KS: To Billy Madison’s credit, it’s a much more surreal comedy than Ace Ventura. The filmmakers are aware that their protagonist appears to have suffered some form of major head trauma. Which is why my favorite line in the entire movie – and one that’s quotable in so many situations – is the principal’s brutal smack-down of Sandler’s rambling puppy/industrial revolution story. By the way, the principal is played by Robert Downey Jr.’s uncle and long-time SNL writer Jim Downey.
DF: Sandler co-wrote Billy Madison, and the movie contains prototypes for Sandlerian tropes that have been replayed in nearly all his movies. There’s the Ridonk Hot Love Interest (typically played by a blonde) who hates Sandler for his abject stupidity until she finds said stupidity incredibly attractive. There’s the Scenery-Chewing Douchebag Villain (typically played by an incredibly talented actor), in this case Bradley Whitford, playing an earlier version of Christopher McDonald in Happy Gilmore, Peter Gallagher in Mr. Deeds, and even Jack Nicholson in Anger Management.
DF: Best of all, there’s the final scene of every movie, in which ever-expanding crowds of people cheer on Adam Sandler for ever-more-outlandish feats of idiocy. (This motif reached its natural apotheosis in Anger Management, when the entire city of New York and Rudy Freaking Giuliani cheered on Sandler’s character for learning to be angry.) It’s the central paradox of Sandler’s onscreen persona: He’s playing a proudly unlikable human being, but by the end of movie, every single person onscreen loves him. He’s like a redemptive jerk messiah.
KS: Maybe he’s hoping that applause in the movie will trick people in the audience into also applauding. Hey, it’s worked on me a couple of times where I just sit there clapping like a hurr-durr idiot because fictional people are doing it. It’s a weirdly Pavlovian response, and, also, I’m pretty dumb. Speaking of which, many of the elements of Sandler’s characters, from their not-quite-intelligence to their mild-to-moderate insanity, were properly harnessed in what is pretty much his best performance ever, in Punch Drunk Love. The character he plays in that movie, with his violent outbursts and antisocial behavior, is essentially a more dramatic interpretation of Billy Madison.
DF: Sandler does occasionally try to stretch a bit. After all, he starred in a James L. Brooks movie, a 9/11 movie, and a vaguely-autobiographical serious-ish movie. Unfortunately, those movies were Spanglish, Reign Over Me, and Funny People, but points for trying. And I legitimately think Click is an interesting movie – the second half isn’t even a comedy, really, just a ruinously depressing portrait of a life wasted.
KS: I actually like Spanglish and Funny People, but I know what you mean. It’s difficult to imagine how any woman would fall for a man(?) who was forced to retake third-grade and who relates more to those third-graders than anyone nearer his own age. (Even when he goes to high school, he gets along better with the 7-year-olds than any of his peers.) That’s why I suspect Veronica was actually just messing with him: She’ll marry Billy once he’s given control of the company and then divorce him a week later, taking half of his fortune with her when she goes. Brilliant!
DF: But then, at the end of the movie, Billy decides not to take over Madison Hotels. All her brilliant plans, foiled! Also, nothing in the movie actually mattered, because Billy won’t take over the company and he’s still a doof. Hooray for the status quo!
DF: Speaking of the supporting cast, I think we should add Bradley Whitford’s Eric to the ever-expanding list of “Movie Villains Who Are Actually Heroes.” Put yourself in his shoes. You’ve worked hard your whole life. You’ve become a high-ranking executive in a Fortune 500 Company. And then your boss, apparently in a fit of dementia, decides to hand off the company he has spent a lifetime building to his illiterate 28-year-old son, who has spent his entire lifetime drinking himself stupid and lighting feces on fire. To add insult to injury, your boss makes his son “prove himself” by attending two weeks of grades 1-12 – because clearly, everything you need to learn in every year of school can be learned in a fortnight. Poor Eric! No wonder he’s driven to madness.
KS: Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore is the same way: Both have entirely reasonable objections to what Sandler’s characters are doing, but because they are such clearly terrible people, you ignore that.
KS: I think The Waterboy is really the epitome of the Sandler schtick: I guess he’s not technically challenged in the same way, but, really, the character is essentially Cuba Gooding Jr. in Radio. Wikipedia’s plot summary of the movie describes him as “a socially inept (but also intelligent), stuttering water boy with hidden anger issues.” If you take out “stuttering water boy,” it’s basically an Adam Sandler character generator. Just input in “spoiled hotel heir,” “hockey player-turned-golfer,” “wedding singer,” or “Devil’s spawn.”
DF: Billy Madison was not a box office success when it hit theaters – it grossed about $25 million on a $20 million budget. Actually, Sandler had a pretty slow rise to really being a serious box office success – it wasn’t until The Waterboy, four years later, that he really became a star. It’s weird to think that the machinery that made him a star barely even exists in Hollywood anymore. For one thing, the studios don’t really make cheap comedies anymore. Also, they seem far less patient with comedy stars, and comedy stars seem more interested in pursuing non-movie careers: Jimmy Fallon and Andy Samberg weren’t offered much after Taxi and Hot Rod, but they’ve done pretty well on TV and via viral videos.
KS: Will Ferrell only made it because his first few films were really successful and of (relatively) high quality: Old School, Elf, Anchorman. On a different note, I just realized something. Look at this list of Adam Sandler comedy titles: Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy, Big Daddy, Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds. Seven titular roles in seven years. Can anyone possibly beat that?
DF: How did he get to Just Go With It? I haven’t seen the movie, but that title might be the worst title in the history of terrible titles. It simultaneously means nothing and everything. It is matter and anti-matter. It actually disappears as you read it.
KS: There are a lot of bad titles like that, though. In fact, I bet we could make a whole paragraph using only vague movie titles.
DF: Let’s do it!
DF & KS: How do you know something’s gotta give? It’s complicated: Life as we know it (life or something like it) is definitely, maybe as good as it gets. Just go with it! Cowboys & aliens.
NEXT WEEK: PopWatch Rewind will celebrate the 10th anniversary of Christopher Nolan’s Memento by watching Memento, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, so we’ll be watching it. The movie is called Memento. Oh sorry, did we repeat ourselves? We have this condition.