There are few movies that were a bigger part of my childhood than Billy Madison. My friend William and I used to watch it at least once a month, to the point where we had all the lines memorized, even the ones that didn’t really make sense to kids in high school. Now, almost ten years later, I had a wild urge to watch it again and relive old times. So I made William dig out his old Adam Sandler DVDs, and a couple nights ago we did just that.
The first thing that I realized was how completely fucking dumb this movie is. I mean, I always knew it was dumb, but in high school it seemed cheeky and clever. That just goes to show you how stupid we were as kids. The opening scene is Billy lounging in the pool, clearly drunk or high or both, squirting suntan lotion into a smiley on his chest and saying “Smiley! Ha ha ha!” in a really goofy manchild voice. Highbrow humor this is not.
I was getting worried that maybe the whole movie was going to be this stupid, but then I started cracking up when Billy realized it was nudie magazine day, and I was dying when he chased the penguin around. Things were looking up. But in the next scene, when Billy has dinner with his dad and all the Madison Hotels executives, I had to cringe at Billy’s gibberish. The only saving grace is Bradley Whitford, who cracks me up with his comically evil, chewing-on-the-scenery villain shtick. Whitford is a legitimate actor, and I suspect his animus towards Billy isn’t entirely an act.
This back and forth between the perfectly silly and achingly dumb characterizes the first act of the movie. The dog doo prank where Billy says “He called the shit ‘poop!’” slays me, but the little song Billy sings while waiting for the bus is just asinine. I remember all the adults and critics complaining about how stupid and unfunny Adam Sandler was back in high school, and now I can understand where they’re coming from. Be that as it may, “Stop looking at me, swan!” is still just as funny as it ever was.
There’s one thing I never picked up on as a kid that really hurts Billy Madison, and that’s the casual racism. His black maid, played by Theresa Merritt, looks and acts like Hattie McDaniel from Gone With the Wind. Merritt is a fine actress, and the jokes about her being horny for Billy (“I thought I was your snack pack!”) are pretty good. But her mammy-isms are offensive from her first moment on screen, and they get compounded every time she shows up. This kind of stuff was rampant back in the 90s, but that doesn’t make it any less despicable.
The movie really picks up when Billy goes back to school. Before that, Billy seems like an overgrown man child, and his baby-talk antics often come off as pathetic. But when he gets back to school, he actually starts acting more mature, which I didn’t expect. I guess this is the point of the movie, though: Billy’s an adult who acts like a second grader, but when he’s forced to go back to school he starts to come to grips with how capable and intelligent he is compared to actual second graders.
Some of my favorite gags come from the grade school part of the movie. The debate about Donkey Kong versus Mortal Kombat slays me. Chris Farley’s bit part as the bus driver is perfect, and the scene where he, Norm MacDonald, and Mark Beltzman get high and steal thirty lunch boxes from the kids on the field trip is awesome. And while there’s a lot of great lines in the movie, my favorite of them all might be “If peeing your pants is cool, consider me Miles Davis.”
Billy’s lusting after Veronica Vaughn, his second grade teacher, is pretty creepy. Looking at it from an adult point of view, Billy seems like a bizarre sexual predator, although when I was a kid I just thought she was hot. It makes no sense that Veronica would go for Billy. There’s a point where Billy pretends to trip on a bus so that he can cop a feel on Ms. Vaughn’s breast, and rather than slap him silly or file a lawsuit, she just laughs and seems sort of charmed by it. Of course she goes for his juvenile behavior, and of course they end up together at the end of the movie, because that’s just the kind of idiotic, male-centric movie this is. I know it’s a farce, but I’d like it better if Billy showed at least a modicum of intelligence that might qualify him as a potential mate, and if Veronica had more self-respect than to go for a dude who sexually assaults her.
The high school part of the movie flies by pretty fast. The high point is the Steve Buscemi cameo. It’s a small part, but when Billy calls Buscemi’s character to apologize for bullying him in high school, we get one of the few moments of true character development for Billy, and I really appreciate it. Buscemi crosses Billy’s name off of a list entitled “People to Kill.” Then he puts on some lipstick, which is a joke that only Steve Buscemi could sell.
The last act, the academic decathlon between Billy and Eric, is a worthy conclusion. The montage of events leading up to the end is full of yucks, and the Jeopardy-style finale is perfect. Billy’s rambling speech sets up the judge’s classic reply, which is probably the greatest put down in history.
All in all, Billy Madison holds up. The two things that surprised me most were the blatant racism, which I definitely didn’t catch onto as an ignorant child, and the painful stupidity of a lot of Adam Sandler’s baby-talking, sing-songy shtick. Some of it just plain sucks. But on the whole, the movie is an effective vehicle for a lot of great gags. The performances of Darren McGavin as Billy’s father and Bradley Whitford as Eric bring a lot of serious-actor gravitas to balance out the idiotic stuff. At the end of the day, Billy Madison is still funny as hell, and this time I’m not going to wait ten years to watch it again.