Director: Tamra Davis
Cast: Adam Sandler, Bradley Whitford, Bridgette Wilson, Darren McGavin, and Steve Buscemi
Watch Billy Madison online in the UK: Netflix UK / Amazon Prime / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
At the outset of his movie career, film critics didn’t see much of a future for Adam Sandler as a leading man. In fairness, Billy Madison doesn’t give them much to go on. His later 1990s fare, like Happy Gilmore and The Wedding Singer, demonstrate more of why he became such a huge star.
Here, his title character is about as irritating as can be, and that’s the whole joke. Co-written by Sandler and his Saturday Night Live collaborator, Tim Herlihy, Tamra Davis’ film is ostensibly about a grown man having to redo his education, starting with elementary school and continuing until he receives his high-school diploma.
The ticking clock finds Billy’s wealthy hotelier father (Darren McGavin) about to hand his company over to loathsome senior partner Eric (Bradley Whitford), unless Billy graduates, but that’s really only an excuse for a succession of sketches with Billy and a bunch of kids of different ages.
Plenty of classic comedies have taken this kind of non-committal structure and made it sing. But with Billy Madison, the film lives and dies on how much you enjoy Sandler’s screen presence. As a rule of thumb, the films where he speaks normally tend to be far less annoying, but this is at least the best of his “stoopid voyce” outings.
As in later films, it’s mainly his show. McGavin and Bridgette Wilson have basically thankless roles that switch between motivating and enabling Sandler’s antics, but Bradley Whitford elevates the measly stakes with his remarkably overqualified turn as the bad guy. There’s not a lot of room to make more of that character, but his conniving pettiness fills it magnificently.
On top of that, the film’s funniest gag revolves around an extended cameo by Steve Buscemi as a man that Billy bullied the first time he went through school. For the most part, the running gags are fairly thinly sketched, (“O’Doyle rules!”) but the film moves apace and as it heads into its berserk third act, it lands punchline after punchline. (“O’Doyles rule!”)w
This is, in many ways, the template for the baggier, less enjoyable films that Sandler has made in more recent years. His character is basically just a gateway for him to hang out in the lap of luxury with his friends and make out with a hot love interest, albeit on a $10 million budget rather than, say, Grown Ups’ whopping $80m. And here, unlike nowadays, he gets away with it, because his character is essentially good-hearted, even if the film doesn’t always seem to be. In this world, old women and homosexuals are weird and they all fancy Billy, but Sandler the writer gets to make those jokes, as long as Sandler the actor is seen to go “hey, everyone’s cool really” at some point. It may be crude, but unlike, say, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, there isn’t a mean bone in its body.
This isn’t judging a 1990s movie by today’s standards, not least because Netflix is full of far worse Sandler comedies made much more recently. Although some may cringe at the moments in which Sandler receives a pile of adoring Valentines from schoolgirls or pretends that a high-schooler wants to kiss him, it’s a long way from the nadir of his statutory-rape-victim-turned-minor celebrity in 2014’s That’s My Boy.
We’ll definitely return to Adam Sandler’s 1990s output at some point in this column – specifically, one film that reaches its 20th anniversary later this year – but Billy Madison is really where it all started. Top of its class for non-sequiturs, it’s utterly puerile, but never mean-spirited. That was very much Sandler’s brand at the peak of his popularity. Fittingly for a comedy about a man who is 12 at heart, it’s a 12-year-old’s idea of the funniest film ever made and entirely on those merits, it holds up very well.
Next time on The 90s On Netflix…
“Houston, we have a problem.”
Billy Madison is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I watch Billy Madison on pay-per-view VOD?