Looking Back: Billy Madison (1995)

In the opening scenes of “Billy Madison,” Adam Sandler (playing the title character) is singing about the virtues of suntan lotion. Moments later, he’s chanting “Nudie Magazine Day” and trying to hit an imaginary swan with a golf cart. Then, he’s present at a dinner party where, in lieu of dialog, he makes jibberish sounds of protest against a business colleague of his father. Finally, the film’s premise is established: Billy is 27-years old, an imbecile whose wealthy father purchased his high school diploma and must re-do K-12th grade in order to inherit his father’s empire. Billy agrees and, rather than simply get ready to pack, he dances to “I’ll Tumble For You” by Culture Club. This all happens within the first fifteen minutes.

The first time I saw this movie, it was during my high school senior ditch day, a glorious event that ended with my classmates and I watching this at a friend’s house. Our homeroom teacher was there, too and found the movie somewhat amusing and kind of horrid. We all laughed and groaned with equal measure and I remember walking away enjoying the movie, as shamelessly idiotic as it was. Seeing “Billy Madison” today is horrifying, not only on how it reflects my apparent lack of taste as a teenager but also because of the film itself. Considering how sub-juvenile, downright baby-ish the dialog is at times and how amateurishly the movie has been made, I’m astonished to learn the film opened on a reported 1,834 screens.

For better or worse, this is the first starring role vehicle for Sandler. It is lazy, stupid, disgusting, moronic and painfully childish. It’s also better and funnier than most movies Sandler has made over the past fifteen years. “Billy Madison” is mostly terrible but, in the midst of the formulaic story, unpleasant central characters and pre-school level of humor, there are some absolutely hilarious throwaway jokes that almost salvage it. One such scene involves the introduction of Steve Buscemi’s character, which is hysterical and has a great payoff. There’s also the climactic, sort-of game show finale, in which Madison’s stupid answer about a dog elicits an utterly hilarious response from the no-nonsense judge.

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Along the way, we get a very game Bridgette Wilson-Sampras as the grade school teacher who, for reasons I will never understand, falls hard for Madison. Wilson-Sampras is delightful, despite following the trend of being paired with a co-star who is hardly a romantic leading man. I’m a fan of Sandler and suspect some women find him attractive. Yet, do you suppose, in real life, he could actually wind up with Salma Hayek, Winona Ryder, Kate Beckinsale, Joey Lauren Adams, Drew Barrymore, Jessica Biehl, Patricia Arquette, Marisa Tomei, Katie Holmes or Jennifer Anniston? Me neither.

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Norm McDonald is on hand, seemingly playing a more relaxed version of himself, if that’s even possible. There’s also Bradley Whitford, portraying the mustache-twirling villain with such relish, I wonder if he’s having as much fun as it looks. Darren McGavin plays Madison’s father, a performance not in the same universe as his work as The Old Man in “A Christmas Story.

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It’s hard to pan “Billy Madison,” because some of it is really fun, while other scenes are too awful to justify a description. I enjoyed Madison’s lustful decree of “So hot, want to touch the hiney! Aw-roo!” Not so much the musical number that randomly pops up and reminded me most of the Village People in “Can’t Stop the Music.” Seeing this now, the blueprint for all of Sandler’s tailor-made comedies are in place: his friend’s involvement, the reliance on a predictable story, the odd combination of sentiment and vulgarity, and a desire to appeal to a very young audience, despite most of his movies being PG-13 raunch fests.

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I find Sandler funny now, though I was slow to join his fan base. His “SNL” shtick is kind of hilarious today but seemed desperate in the 90’s. Looking at his portrayals of “Opera Man,” “Cajun Man” and “Canteen Boy” feel like warm ups for his movie roles. He’s funny because we can relax and embrace the knowingly dumb nature of the jokes and smile when we realize this guy is making millions at playing these idiots! “Happy Gilmore” is a better, far funnier, better written comedy that might be Sandler’s finest. There’s also “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Reign Over Me” and “Funny People,” which surprised us by showing that Sandler is, in fact, a fine actor. Then there’s “Billy Madison,” in which, while bathing, he bangs a shampoo and conditioner bottle together, staging a war of total hair care dominance. It really is something to see.

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