VOD film review: Happy Gilmore (1996)
Mark Harrison | On 09, Apr 2020
Director: Denis Dugan
Cast: Adam Sandler, Christopher McDonald, Julie Bowen, Carl Weathers, Frances Bay
Watch Happy Gilmore online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
“Oh man, that was so much easier than putting. I should just try to get the ball in one shot every time.” I’ve remarked in this column before that Adam Sandler’s 1990s movies have an odd knack for talking about what he’s going to go on to do later in his career, but it’s easy to see how a winner like 1996’s Happy Gilmore would tee up all the daft sports comedies he made thereafter.
Inspired by one of his childhood friends, Sandler and his regular co-writer Tim Herlihy came up with the idea of a wannabe hockey player transferring his formidable slap-shot to the golf course. In writing the script, the pair included anything that made them laugh, an approach which hasn’t always panned out as well for the star as it does with this career-defining mix of silliness and sweetness, injected right into the stuffiest of sports.
Happy is a belligerent so-and-so who can’t hold down a job or a relationship,(so far, so Sandler) but would move mountains for his elderly grandmother (Frances Bay). After the IRS repossesses his gran’s house, Happy enters a professional golfing tournament, using his formidable 400-foot drive to help him scrape together enough prize money to cover her unpaid tax bill. Along the way, he exasperates his trainer, Chubbs Peterson (Carl Weathers), PR maven Virginia Venit (Julie Bowen), and preening tournament favourite Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald).
We’ve previously mused on the Capra-meets-crapulence essentials of Sandler’s appeal during his early stardom, but like its title character, the film needs to match power and accuracy in its comical drive. Where Billy Madison leans too hard on inconsequential silliness and Big Daddy veers into sorting characters by status, Happy Gilmore handily achieves that balance. In the main, it also skirts away from the crasser or more mean-spirited edges of some of Sandler’s later films.
In retrospect, you can almost see Sandler casting the die throughout the film. The best of the later variations on this formula are just as lively, but while most of his other sports comedies have at least one repetitive “You can do it” moment, not one of them has Weathers’ preposterous mentor, Bowen’s unusually switched-on love interest, or McDonald’s magnificent nemesis.
Other delights range from a young Ben Stiller’s uncredited role as a despotic nursing home orderly to the mighty Richard Kiel’s best non-Jaws role as Happy’s angry-boss-turned-biggest-fan. Given Sandler and Herlihy’s Saturday Night Live pedigree, it’s unsurprising that these feel like sketch characters, but each of them slot into the mayhem nicely.
Furthermore, this was the first film Sandler made with long-time collaborator Denis Dugan and this cheaper and more cheerful project easily tops anything they’ve done since in terms of visual gags. Whether it’s Bob Barker’s ridiculous cameo or Chubbs’ subplot about an alligator biting off his hand in his golfing prime, the script’s deliberately disparate skits escalate very nicely under Dugan’s direction.
Supremely silly and mostly sweet, Happy Gilmore is Adam Sandler par excellence. From the premise up, it’s built as a massive swing, but its scatter-brained sketches feel strangely precise, thanks to a strong, high-concept premise and an all-timer of a villain. More than just a round of crazy golf from the goofball who would soon go on to become America’s biggest comedy movie star, it’s one of his funniest films.