Something vital occurs when an actor discovers their perfect persona – an extrapolation of their whole comic world that carries an entire world along with it. So it was with Billy Madison, Adam Sandler’s film about a developmentally challenged twenty-something who retakes every school grade in twenty-four weeks to make himself eligible to inherit his father’s Fortune 500 company. This was Sandler’s first solo vehicle since Going Overboard and he totally nailed it – from the very first scene it’s clear that this is the role he was born to play. While Happy Gilmore, released a year later, was arguably more polished, Billy Madison has the rawness of a comedian discovering their voice, making it the foundational film in both the entire Happy Madison universe, and the new Brat Pack that emerged in the mid-late 1990s.
It’s also a remarkably fully-fledged film, which can’t be said about most of Sandler’s other works. In part, that’s down to the direction of Tamra Davis, who had a background in music video, and so knows how to build momentum here without much in the way of real plot. But the main ingredient is Sandler, who’s abject, infantile, petulant, and borderline catatonic from the first scene. In the first ten minutes alone, we see him singing to sunscreen, talking to shampoo, perusing weird girlie magazines and hallucinating a penguin. It’s no coincidence that these scenes all feature Sandler effectively talking to himself, since his comic style is fundamentally narcissistic, explaining why everyone loves Billy (or is attracted to him). In Sandler’s earlier films, he comes off as an apex predator who can’t survive in the same ecosystem with members of the same comic species, mainly because he can’t really do punchliners, or one-liners, meaning he doesn’t thrive when bouncing off other comic voices.
To some extent, Sandler tried to deny these tendencies in his earlier films, whether in the half-hearted metafictional quips of Going Overboard, or his roles in ensemble vehicles like Mixed Nuts and Airheads. Here, however, he fully embraces this narcissistic streak, refusing to engage in anything resembling comic repartee, and instead countering the various zingers thrown his way with the most juvenile or revolting responses possible. After realising he could never be the smartest comedian in the room, Sandler now opts for being the stupidest, and there’s a kind of genius in that. At its best, it turns Billy Madison into a surreal deconstruction of dialogue-driven comedy and conventional wit – so avowedly lowbrow, and so relentless in its quest to avoid middlebrow, that it ends up generating a highbrow quality that’s all its own.
In that sense, Sandler is perhaps the true heir to John Belushi, who embraced the same abject, anti-intellectual streak of American comedy. The opening scene, when Sandler sings to sunscreen as he applies it to his chest, reminded me of the scene in Animal House when Belushi takes a look at all the fratboys making out around him, and promptly slides food down his chest. In both cases, you have an undifferentiated pleasure-principle that can’t or won’t separate sex from other bodily drives, perhaps explaining why even the most sentimental moments in Billy Madison have a queasy erotic frisson that prevents this ever quite being a family film. Like Belushi, Sandler nails the toddler persona, moving from a saccharine credulity to temper tantrums without the slightest provocation. He only really gels with kids, but you never know when he’s going to beat up a kid either, which keeps the film prickly and on edge.
In other words, this is the Citizen Kane of puerility – an exercise in mawkish childishness that’s always a bit too sentimental to be really cruel, and a bit too cruel to be really sentimental. As revolting as he is, Madison is also disgusted by every body apart from his own (except supermodels) – inane, but always scandalised by even more inane, quasi-Dadaist rhythms that percolate their way through the action. So grossed out by his own body that he has to project all its uncontrollable urges onto every other body he sees, Madison captures the awkwardness of male adolescence so succinctly that you can easily see why the film resonated with an entire generation. We’re watching Madison’s wet dream writ large as cinema, as arousal and self-disgust stimulate each other into an endless, abject feedback loop.
No surprise, then, that this was one of the most aired, rented and rewatched films of the 90s, since the only way to get over the disgust of watching it is to watch it again. And the more you watch it, the more you see how elegantly and perfectly this premise works, taking the developmental comedy so popular in the early 90s and literalising it, as Madison works his way through every grade of school. By the time he reaches the sixth grade, he’s found his people, and so this is the only place in the film where Sandler can really acknowledge the existence of other people. Other adults may as well not exist, while his relationship with mentor Veronica Vaughan, played by Bridgette Wilson, is the first of many unconvincing romances in the Happy Madison universe. Yet that just makes it funnier that most of the adults play it straight, with only Bradley Whitford mirroring Madison’s inane energy as Eric Gordon, his arch-nemesis, who tries to thwart his schooling to inherit the company himself.
In the end, Billy Madison cements the Happy Madison brand as an exercise in cuck comedy, especially whenever Sandler himself is front and centre. Since his comedy is fundamentally self-referential, women can’t exist in it except as a projection of his own insecurities and anxieties – a tendency that Paul Thomas Anderson would mine, in a more arthouse vein, in Punch-Drunk Love. What redeems that inane narcissism, however, is how radically Sandler identifies with it here – only Jim Carrey would approach this level of comic intensity during the 90s. Sandler would actually find his one and only romantic muse in Drew Barrymore a few films later, and stick with her on and off for the rest of his career, but there’s something purer about seeing him comically isolated here, since that’s where his inane signature really shines.