Billy Madison was Adam Sandler’s most vital film, but Happy Gilmore was his most polished. In fact, Billy Madison nailed Sandler’s comic persona so purely and perfectly that it was almost a dead end, forcing Sandler to scramble for ways to reinvent and reimagine his toddler persona over his next few films. Billy Madison was also autoerotic cinema, incapable of recognising anything but Sandler’s urges (and disgusted at the prospect of anyone else’s) – a profoundly and comically antisocial form of movie-making that might not necessary work outside of that one splendid incarnation. Over his next four films, which came to comprise his golden age, before the Happy Madison formula went stale, Sandler would experiment with different ways of brokering this fundamentally narcissistic appeal, but none of them would expand upon it quite so eloquently as Happy Gilmore, which became his second true classic.
From the credit sequence, which introduces Happy’s family, father and love of golf, it’s clear we’re in for a much more realistic character than Billy Madison. Part of Billy’s genius was to fuse mawkish sentimentality and insane aggression into the same behaviours, creating set pieces that were somehow sweet and twisted in equal measure. Here, however, Sandler dissociates these two traits somewhat, painting Happy as an essentially sentimental character who’s prone to occasional outbursts of infantile rage. Sandler would go on to separate these two traits even further in his next two films – The Wedding Singer, which is largely sentimental, and works as a regular romcom, and The Waterboy, which doubles down so heavily on Billy Madison that Sandler regresses past toddlerhood to pretty much play a baby.
In Happy Gilmore, however, these two traits were poised in a volatile and precarious balance, making for the most dynamic film of Sandler’s entire career. On the one hand, he does a great job of integrating Billy’s rough edges into the more fully-formed Happy, a failed hockey player who unexpectedly discovers that he can transplant his skill set into the world of pro golf. On the other hand, the more anarchic side of Sandler is always threatening to break through, even or especially when the film is most sentimental, creating a perpetual sense of threat, an edge of fear, that makes the comedy far sharper than in Sandler’s more saccharine later films.
Sandler’s comic persona was always going to work brilliantly in a sports film, but there’s a special genius in the way that Happy Gilmore envisages golf as an outlet for aggression. At times, Happy feels modelled on Tiger Woods, not just because his best asset is his amazing drive, but because he quickly garners a rock star following that punctures all the affectation and hubris normally associated with this most gentlemanly of sports. None of the supposed bonhomie and largesse of the links means much to Happy, who disposes of his opponents like they’re coming at him with hockey sticks, which endears him to the crowds, much as Tiger’s willingness to call out the racism of American golf culture did at this same moment in time. The continuous movement across different golf courses also gives the film a terrific sense of pace and momentum – room to breathe – while opening up space for a plethora of terrific bit parts that really draw out the comic texture of Happy’s world, and offset Sandler’s raw edges.
That said, Sandler is still not great at repartee, or comic dialogue, with most of the jokes involving repeating words rather than coming up with rejoinders of his own. Yet this is still the sharpest his dialogue ever was, partly because he’s so brilliant at conjuring up a willingness to insult, even if the insults themselves don’t always land. For a film that doesn’t have any real profanity, Happy Gilmore feels decidedly R-rated at times, which is a testament to the intensity of Sandler’s aggression, and his willingness to approach his films with the same cocky attitude as a professional sportsman. Sandler also discovers a strategy here that would serve him well over his next few films – constructing a third act that doesn’t require any sustained dialogue, and thus allows him to build to a resonant and comic conclusion without having to interact, per se, with anyone other than himself. Here, that final set piece takes the form of his standoff with golfer Shooter McGavin, played by Christopher McDonald, who traces muttered barbs with him as they play the final round of a grand slam tournament.
Shooter was the best antagonist Sandler would ever have, and almost deserves a film to himself, but he’s just one of many side players who fill out the comic world here. In Billy Madison, Sandler surrounded himself with largely naturalistic and well-meaning characters, along with the occasional freak to prompt some good reaction shots. There are less freaks here, but also less naturalism, since most of the characters are closer to Sandler’s level, meaning he feels like less of an anomaly and more of an everyman. Specifically, there are more characters who match or mirror his aggressive antisociality – obviously Shooter, but also Ben Stiller as Hal, the sadistic nurse who takes care of Happy’s grandmother, played by Frances Bay, when she is forced to move into a nursing home after not paying her taxes. These figures of perverse mockery are our first glimpse of the Sandler victimology – his tendency to take on the role of the bully to compensate for a world that is supposedly set on bullying him. This isn’t my favourite side of Sandler, so I was glad it remains relatively toned down here.
Yet even when Happy tones it down, and learns to putt properly, his body language doesn’t fit the golf course. Nor does his drive, which propels the ball with a supersonic force through a series of helicopter shots that gives this sports film quite a motivational and epic edge as well. Rather than revert back to the abjection of Billy Madison, however, Sandler opts for a more Zucker-esque sense of physical absurdity – the same comic lineage he drew on in the General Noreaga plot of Going Overboard, but refined and consolidated in this new context.
The result is possibly the most schizoid film of Sandler’s career – an allegory for the beta-turned-alpha male that sees him hyper-aggressive and lovably harmless, toxic and sentimental, relatable and marginal, at the same time. Where Billy Madison explored the farthest reaches of Sandler’s freakdom, Happy Gilmore brokers his inherent blandness to craft an adolescent everyman persona. That ability to be both bland and crude, both basic and eccentric, was at the heart of Sandler’s appeal, turning him into an aspirational figure: he makes the same jokes adolescent males make, and never really seems in a comic class of his own, but somehow he gets the girl, the trophies and the adulation of the equally adolescent crowd. He’s a rock star whose fantasy life can’t extend beyond a woman in lingerie serving him beer – remarkable in his banality, and his willingness to double down on his banality. Rather than try to craft the perfect comeback, as he in Going Overboard, his comic signature lies precisely in not being able to find the right comeback, which is possibly the most relatable comic experience of all, and one he would never use to such striking effect as he does here.