Billy Madison (1995)
Director: Tamra Davis
Screenwriters: Adam Sandler, Tim Herlihys
Starring: Adam Sandler, Bradley Whitford, Bridgette Wilson, Josh Mostel
I loved Billy Madison when I was a kid. My friend and I would quote it incessantly because it’s an irresistible cornucopia of school humor. After a few reenactments of “t-t-t-today, Junior,” teachers lose the will to combat it because they know it’s coming. We joked about how sloppy we like our sloppy joes at lunch, or we would declare how cool peeing our pants was when we spilled water on the crotch. It was internet memes, except only nine other people (it was a tiny school) were subjected to our shenanigans (yes, we quoted Super Troopers just as much).
It was years ago that I last watched Billy Madison, and the passing of time has not helped it. Not that it was some critical gem in the first place, but it’s clear that our society’s collective sense of humor has changed since then.
That’s not good for a movie that is relying on the jokes to prop it up.
The big standout is how often the movie punches down. I don’t think Sandler intended for the film to be mean-spirited, and it doesn’t come across that way, but I can’t support the decision to use a fat, non-hetero character as the butt of a joke. The principal, AKA The Revolting Blob, is a former wrestler who killed someone and makes Billy uncomfortable with sexual advances. Those are the jokes he’s a part of! Billy makes fun of a kid with a stutter, and his black maid is only used as a person for Madison to make weird sexual advances towards. The most tasteless moment is when Billy sexually assaults his teacher on a double dare (after acknowledging that such an act is assault), and she’s fine with it! The film, unintentionally or not, is showing that if a woman rejects your advances, you need to just keep trying — and that she’ll find your violation of her bodily autonomy endearing.
But, who is Billy Madison?
Picture Trump 50 years ago, begging his dad for a small loan of one million dollars for a business while chasing penguins and reading nudie magazines. He’s a spoiled fuck-up who feels entitled to his dad’s business. He’s a wildly incompetent nuisance, and it’s revealed that his high school diploma was paid for by his father. To earn a chance to run his dad’s business, Billy has to go through school all over again.
Billy’s wealth feels more like a storytelling convenience than a vital part of the film’s structure. It gives us a character without a care in the world — no struggles or hardships. There are no comments on class, and Billy never realizes the extent of his privilege compared to others. No one plainly addresses his utter lack of qualifications after “graduating” high school. He doesn’t renounce his father’s wealth or the benefits of the business. Even if the ridiculousness is part of the joke, it’s not so funny that things couldn’t have been changed to make the movie better, and the character relatable. Frankly, I have a hard time feeling much for the rich kid who doesn’t need anything but his name to be guaranteed survival.
Sandler’s goofball schtick isn’t funny. Speaking in gibberish and making weird voices are weak attempts at humor, but there are moments where Sandler shows life as a lovable loser. Bridgette Wilson plays her problematic role perfectly, showing a pretty convincing turn from Billy’s biggest hater to his lover. He’s not worth it, but damn it if she isn’t great in the pool scene where she motivates him to finish school. Norm McDonald’s bits never fails to crack me up, and Chris Farley is the best cameo in the movie.
Billy Madison‘s strongest moments are when it’s at its most absurd. The “sloppy joes” joke, the kissing at the end, and the musical number are the best parts. The plot is so stupid that there needs to be more of these elements to keep the entire idea in perspective. Surreal visual elements would have made for a more interesting movie visually, too — the film looks so full overall; give us an acid trip and bizarre high school dance! Make everyone’s actions and statements crazy. Anyone can write a joke based on prejudice, but we can never have enough creative, absurdist comedy in the world.
I’ll probably never watch Billy Madison again, and I wouldn’t recommend watching it if you’ve never seen it. It’s not worth the time when there are so many better movies out there. If you take anything away from this experience, it’s that no one stays mired in juvenile humor, and we all have the capability to move on from it. Even Adam Sandler! I’ll continue to quote the “I award you no points” line, though — it’s so incisive… and, ironically, also applies to this movie.