[box cover]

Billy Madison: Special Edition

Universal Studios Home Video

Starring Adam Sandler, Bridgette Wilson, Bradley Whitford and Darren McGavin.

Written by Tim Herlihy and Adam Sandler
Directed by Tamra Davis

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Spoiled man-child Billy Madison (Adam Sandler) spends his days drinking, leafing through porno mags, and chasing hallucinatory man-sized penguins. When Billy's tycoon father finally tires of his 27-year-old son's death-grip on adolescence, he announces that he's retiring as head of the Madison hotel chain and handing the company over to, not his own offspring, but cutthroat corporate weasel Eric (Bradley Whitford), who's worked his way to the top. Desperate to prove he's not a hopeless screw-up (his father paid his school teachers for Billy's passing grades), Billy makes his dad a deal: he will re-enroll in grades 1-12, pass each of them in two weeks, and if he graduates, he gets the company. If he fails, it all goes to Eric.

Billy Madison was shredded by critics and generally ignored by audiences upon its theatrical release. It was often characterized as an insipid, childish collection of bathroom humor and immaturity. Those slights, while occasionally true, are grossly unfair. Billy Madison is a free-spirited, ingeniously creative comedy which happens to be about an insipidly immature person who enjoys childish bathroom humor. It's also one of the best comedies of the 1990s.

While the plot of Billy Madison is ridiculous, it's absolutely perfect to showcase the talents of Sandler. Unlike the often feeble attempts by other Saturday Night Live alumni (especially from Sandler's era) to parlay their negligible gifts onto the big screen, Madison works because Sandler co-wrote it (along with college pal Tim Herlihy). Instead of depending on other writers to craft jokes in his persona, Sandler takes a proactive approach, and in doing so fills the movie with an abundance of the absurd silliness only available to comics who have carefully sculpted their personal comic milieu. Although the script sticks to a tight and uninspired formula — a screenwriting class could be taught by it — its reliably predictable twists and turns are always spun in incredibly bizarre and hilarious fashion.

Sandler exhibits tremendous generosity as the star and creator, insisting that every minor character is not there to simply support or react to his own outrageousness (like the narcissistic approach of, say, Jim Carrey). In Billy Madison (and later, in Happy Gilmore), Sandler spreads the comedy out amongst the whole cast, giving nearly every character in the film a funny moment to savor, which sometimes results in odd, pace-shifting tangents, but absurdly funny ones, at that.

Sandler has said in interviews that he regards the making of a movie like throwing a party; he surrounds himself with friends and actors who know how to have fun. It shows, and it's infectious. Darren McGavin (the dad in A Christmas Story) plays Billy's father with a rueful disregard for consequence, and Bradley Whitford takes on the role of villainous Eric with the same dry intensity that would later make him a star on TV's The West Wing. Bridgette Wilson shows some real spunk as Billy's third-grade teacher/love interest, and importantly makes the buffoonish lead character more likable by her assent. The film is also filled with cameos, including the film debut of Norm MacDonald, a great appearance by Steve Buscemi, and an unbridled performance by the late Chris Farley — his best ever on screen.

Sandler also shows an early gift for, some will doubt, subtlety. While it's funny to watch him yelling, singing, talking in gibberish, and making as ass out himself, there are some wonderful moments of comic subtext behind the bluster. Often in Billy Madison what is funniest in a scene is not the action but the context. And Sandler, buffoon that he may be, elicits surprising empathy, mostly because (unlike, again, Jim Carrey) his comic bits don't come off like an act or a desperate attempt to ignite a catchphrase; the humor here, as broad as it is, comes directly from the characters, and straight from their hearts, however misguided. Also winning is Sandler's obvious rapport with the many engaging child actors who share the screen with him.

Certainly, viewers who find Sandler grating may well feel piercing head pain during this film, but such is true of any star-driven vehicle, especially comedies. But very few similar comedies constructed around a well-known comic persona feature such a wealth of imagination and love of comedy as is on display in Billy Madison.

Director Tamra Davis was brought in after four days of shooting, and although saddled with a few unsuccessful gags (many of which are almost funny simply for their brazen unconventionality), keeps the pace humming and all the scenes bright and colorful. While she occasionally over-directs, her otherwise light touch, combined with Sandler's acute sense of arrested development, and a laugh-a-minute screenplay by Sandler and Herlihy, make this not only an enduring comedy, but also an observant and affectionately nostalgic look at grade-school and childhood.

*          *          *

Universal re-releases Billy Madison in this Special Edition, which is available in a two-pack with Sandler's follow-up Happy Gilmore. The feature is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Davis reflects on the film in a surprisingly engaging commentary track, during which she gushes over her talent and expresses frequent awe at Sandler's instinctive and unfettered sense of humor. This disc also includes over half-an-hour of deleted scenes, many of which are amusing (including several additional encounters with Madison's inappropriately horny maid) and some of which were included in television broadcasts of the movie. There's also a typically insufferable gag reel (set to wacky music, no less). Keep-case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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