It’s all too easy for film enthusiasts — critics, academics, amateur bloggers — to ignore Billy Madison (1995). Released in February of 1995, the film seemed notable at the time only for being the first leading vehicle for its star, Adam Sandler, on the verge of finishing up a memorable four year run on NBC’s flagship variety show Saturday Night Live. That notoriously hit-or-miss program served perhaps most importantly as an incubator for future comedy stars, going all the way back to the show’s inception in 1975 and the show’s first breakout cast member, Chevy Chase, and extending through such stars as Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, and just prior to the release of Billy Madison, Mike Myers. The formula was simple: cast promising young comedians and comic actors and let them develop a menagerie of recurring characters and celebrity impressions. While at first these actors are expected to be versatile sketch comedy utility players, eventually they will develop a clear and definable persona that can be slotted into various scenarios and settings with minimal variation on the central character — a character that will, with time, be scarcely separable from the public’s vision of the actor themselves. Eddie Murphy is a motormouthed, wisecracking but good-natured thorn in the side of the establishment. Bill Murray is a dryly sarcastic oddball who balances cynicism and a shrugging contentment. Dan Aykroyd is a deadpan obsessive, able to spout a variety of trivia and jargon without blinking an eye. Once considerable fan appreciation has built up for the actor, they’ll be given their own starring vehicle tailored to their particular persona. This wasn’t really a wholly new set-up. It was just that SNL had replaced or expedited more traditional show business routes, like stand-up clubs or radio comedy troupes.
Madison was greeted with solid, if unspectacular, box office receipts and quite poor critical reception. Roger Ebert said its star Sandler was “not an attractive screen presence,” and compared him to nails on a chalkboard. Brian Lowry of Variety worried if audiences would grow tired of the protagonist before the opening credits were over. Barbara Shulgasser of the San Francisco Chronicle seemed to sum up the critical reaction to the film by bemoaning the state of the film industry and asking “Is this how one conducts a career these days?” But the film’s financial success was the start of something very big, something that would seem to baffle those critics who panned the film in 1995. Adam Sandler went on to be one of the most successful comic stars in film history, whose films have grossed a combined $2 billion dollars worldwide. Recent reports suggest that for Sandler’s recent film, 2013’s hit Grown Ups 2, he was paid a salary of over $15,000,000 — a paycheck 150% of the entire budget of his Billy Madison. Like it or not, Sandler has been a consistently successful screen star for nearly 20 years, and it appears as though he is here to stay.
To understand the popularity of the Sandler persona, it might be useful to examine the early films of his career. After all, it is nearly always the early works of an an artist or entertainer’s career that are the most popular by consensus, because if we,m as an audience, didn’t agree on the early works, we would have no agreed-upon terms by which to discuss the later works (this is the same reason why a strong late period Bruce Springsteen album like Wrecking Ball will never be as popular as a Born to Run, but that is a story for another time). However, Billy Madison presents something of a challenge to someone seeking to understand the Adam Sandler formula, to no small degree because the film itself is a challenge to the as-yet-unformulated Adam Sandler formula.
There was a certain kind of commercial American comedy film that was particularly common in early and mid ’90s. This is not to say that there was no precedent for these kinds of films beforehand, nor that these kinds of films do not persist to this day, but from around 1990 to 1995 there was a kind of flourishing of these types of films, and some gained extreme popularity, and they were linked together by a common set of traits, narrative and stylistic, that were characteristic to most. These films were typically based around and built around a leading comedy performer with a defined persona — a Robin Williams or a Steve Martin or a Billy Crystal, for instance — and placed that character in a position where their comedic persona was placed in the position of a lovable underdog who triumphs over smug enemies and unlikely odds through his good heart and personal quirks, while also learning a valuable lesson along the way. The tone is light, in both the comedy and the requisite moments of heartstrings-tugging drama, which tend to last for a brief moment in an inevitable second act “dark point” . Laughs tend to come from broad physical humor, amusing but unsophisticated wordplay, and fish-out-of-water sight gags. While some of the physical humor may be described as particularly “wacky,” generally, the films take place in what is more-or-less a reasonable (and reasonably pleasant) fascimile of the real world, with obvious diversions from accepted reality and breaks with the fourth wall kept to a minimum. These films, such as City Slickers, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Problem Child, King Ralph, the Kid ‘n Play vehicle Class Act, My Cousin Vinny, Mrs. Doubtfire, Grumpy Old Men, and 1994’s Airheads, which featured Adam Sandler in a pre-stardom supporting role, vary somewhat, but have as their spine a generic (in both senses of the word) plot and set of character interactions that come together to create an familiar and acceptably pleasant atmosphere that when coupled with some jokes and gags, can create a beloved favorite. The recent crop of Sandler films (and he is most certainly the auteur of his films) manifest themselves a slightly modified, personalized form of the type of films mentioned above.
This body of films fluctuates from the very good (My Cousin Vinny, which is incidentally the most accurate trial film in Hollywood history) to the abysmal (most of them, including most Sandler films), but for the purposes of this piece, I think the most revealing film to look at is 1995’s Chris Farley showcase Tommy Boy, released only a month after Billy Madison. The truth is that these two films form a clear and obvious parallel to each other, and a look at Tommy Boy (perhaps the archetypal ’90s comedy underdog film) illustrates much about just how incisive of a comment Billy Madison was on the films of its ilk. Watching Tommy Boy is watching Billy Madison without any of the self-awareness, the venom, or the absurd qualities which make the latter a nearly singular film.
The basic plot of Billy Madison is as follows: the title character (Sandler), the only son of a wealthy hotel chain mogul lives a life of drunken tomfoolery and immature shenanigans with his friends until the day comes that his father decides to bequeath his entire family business to a corporate underling, Eric (Bradley Whitford), leaving Billy without an inheritance. Billy, who learns that he only got through school because his father bribed all of his teachers growing up, convinces his father that if he can go through first through twelfth grade again, and pass, that he is worthy of inheriting Madison hotels, to which his father agrees. Over the rest of the film, Billy attends each grade, alongside age-appropriate child students, until he finally emerges victorious over Eric in the climactic Academic Decathlon. From this brief description, one can easily imagine a painfully generic film (starring, let’s say, Billy Crystal) full of dull naptime jokes, triumphant dodgeball games, and montages set to terrible covers of Motown classics, with some lessons learned along the way for our mischievous but lovable hero.
Billy Madison is not quite that film. Does it have these elements? Kind of. But they are all tempered and undercut by repeated moments of absolute absurdity, non-sequiturs, and scenes where Sandler and co-writer Tim Herlihy’s script seems to be aware of the dramatic and generic conventions of the lovable-underdog genre, and exaggerates the expected elements until they take on an absolutely unexpected form. The central goal of Sandler, Herlihy, and director Tamra Davis in making Billy Madison in the way they did seems to be the complete and utter subversion of the idea of a lovable oddball triumphing over the odds.
Billy Madison, as played by Sandler, could only be seen as lovable in the sense that he is the protagonist of the film. Otherwise he is, as Roger Ebert said in 1995, like “nails on a chalkboard.” He does ‘silly’ voices for no reason other than to annoy the people around him, including his father. He willingly shirks all responsibility for the first thirty or so years of his life, sponging off the wealth of his father and contributing nothing to society. He physically assaults the servants when a game of kickball doesn’t go his way. He verbally (and physically!) attacks small children, sexually harasses women (both adults and teenagers!), and all-around lies, cheats, and steals to get his way. And note that this is not just at the beginning of the film, as a way of establishing the flawed person he was before he undergoes the expected “change of heart.” Billy remains an all-around asshole to the end. We even see him cheat in the final, climactic Academic Decathlon where he is supposed to be proving his merit. And yet the world of Billy Madison bends over backwards to reward and praise the title character, at the expense of everyone else in the world; Billy Madison revolves around “Billy Madison” to an absurd degree. The whole premise is willfully nonsensical. Why should being able to go through elementary and secondary school as 30-year-old man qualify Billy to run a hotel chain, seeing as how he spends all of his time drunkenly hallucinating a giant penguin that he inexplicably feels a need to chase? And why would someone as seemingly intelligent and capable as Billy’s father agree to this plan? There is no reason, other than the fact that he is the main character of the movie, and in a lovable underdog movie, the sweet bumbling hero has to be allowed to succeed, even if they should not.
By my count, he basically does only two decent, altruistic things over the entire length of the film, and the first example — pretending to have urinated on himself to spare a third-grader the embarrassment — has such a bizarre and antisocial consequence, causing an entire class of third graders to pee themselves, that it’s hard to see the act as a Jefferson Smith-esque moment of essential goodness. The second example, giving this essay it’s title, rewards Billy for one brief act of modest kindness — calling a former classmate, played by Steve Buscemi, and apologizing for bullying him in high school — with a disproportionately beneficial, and utterly insane, reaction: Buscemi saves Billy from losing the Academic Decathlon by crossing Billy’s name off a “People To Kill” list, firing on Eric with a sniper rifle, and slipping away, unnoticed into the distance. Billy notes this unlikely series of events with a simple, succinct, remark: “I’m glad I called that guy,” highlighting the exact kind of protagonist-centric fatalism of this kind of deus ex Buscemi — a moment of genre-based exaggeration that exposes the ludicrousness of the typical climax of a lovable underdog film, where Chris Farley’s Tommy, for instance, finds that all the characters he’s encountered along the way and all the good deeds he’s accomplished have come back to help him out. For Billy Madison, one brief phone call where he exhibits basic human decency is enough to spawn a sniper-rifle wielding madman to save his life in the finale. It’s a hilarious moment of absurdity and metafiction wrapped in the traditional trappings of a shiny Hollywood product, made all the more wonderful by Buscemi’s wonderful, smilingly crazy performance.
The perfectly pulled-off climax of the movie, everything comes around the give Billy everything he wants and to punish all of his enemies and rivals disproportionately. Perhaps an even better example would be the fate of the O’Doyle family. Throughout the film, a large family of redheads named the O’Doyles continue to mildly bother Billy — throwing dodgeballs at him, dumping milk on his head, etc. — prompting Billy to say “O’Doyle, I got a feeling your whole family’s going down.” Towards the end of the movie, the O’Doyles (all of them, including young children) are driving down on a family road trip, chanting “O’Doyle rules! O’Doyle rules!” And what happens to them? Their car literally slips on a banana peel, careens off the road, and falls off a cliff, sending the entire family to their untimely deaths in a off-screen explosion. In a lovable underdog film, being at any point opposed to the protagonist is an invitation for your own karmic humiliation. In Billy Madison, it’s an invitation for fiery death.
The world, for the most part, loves him. He is somehow, despite being played by nebbishy little Adam Sandler and being, literally, an elementary schooler, the subject of numerous characters vast sexual desire. In addition to the requisite love interest (then it-girl Bridgette Wilson as Billy’s third grade teacher, who goes from hating to loving him as a result of absolutely nothing), Billy’s maid Juanita asserts her attraction while alone to herself by declaring “Ooh, that boy’s a fine piece of work all right. He’s a fine piece of ass though, too.” A group of third grade girls fawn and sigh over him like he’s a member of Hanson. Even Billy’s elementary school principal Mr. Anderson gives him a card on Valentine’s Day with a short and simple post-script: “I’m horny”. Occasionally, a character will be aware of the insanity of the plot of the film. When starting the third grade, Billy turns to a little boy to his right and says “I mean, first and second grade was easy, but social studies and long division?! This is gonna be tough!” But the boy merely stares, dumbstruck, at Billy, knowing that this really should not be happening. At this point, Billy turns to a different boy on his left and repeats — word for word — the same spiel, this time getting an introduction to his new sidekick Ernie. It’s a brief lifting of the veil before the world of the film “rights” itself. The final scene of the film gives Billy and all his “friends” pairing off to dramatically kiss in the sunset, including Chris Farley’s rage-driven bus driver, who gets a handjob from Billy’s hallucinated giant penguin. A happy ending indeed.
The parody at the core of Billy Madison threw off contemporary reviewers. Comedies that satirize other comedies are rare; we’re used to the Hot Shots! and Naked Guns of the world, parodying genres that take themselves deathly seriously. That kind of parody is more familiar, and it’s target’s flaws are more recognizable. But parodying a comedy is both much more difficult and equally valid. Comedic films are just as popular, if not more popular than dramatic films, and they are just as bound by generic conventions, and they reinforce their own potentially harmful messages that need to have the piss taken out of them, just like dramatic films do. Billy Madison is a full-on assault on the idea that just because someone is the hero of a story they deserve all the gifts of the world and all their enemies deserve to be taken down. Billy Madison deserves nothing and gets everything, but he’s the hero, so in film logic that must be okay,’ — that’s the line of thinking Sandler and Herlihy want to question, yet most people do not consciously question it after seeing the film. But every joke, every laugh comes from the complete exaggeration of the traditional tropes and mores of this kind of film, illuminating the ridiculousness of them.
This film is an anomaly. Even by Sandler’s immediate followup, Happy Gilmore, a worthy comedy, he began to move away from subverting cliches and move into the cliches themselves. Perhaps creating Billy Madison proved too exhausting for Sandler. It certainly took more effort and creativity than the lazy excuses for “stories” that his recent films exhibit. In most artistic bodies of work you can watch the auteur comment on his earlier works as time goes on — think John Ford making The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Cheyenne Autumn — but ironically, for Sandler, it is his later films that his first film mocks. But for as many Just Go with Its as we get, we’ll always have Billy Madison. And I’m glad for that.