25 Years Ago: ‘Billy Madison’ Marks Adam Sandler’s Film Breakout
At various points in Billy Madison, Adam Sandler's breakout feature, the titular man-child stages a bubble-bath fight between shampoo and conditioner ("condith-na"), interrupts a formal business dinner by firing off volatile rounds of gibberish ("Tallahoo-hoo") and drunkenly chases a hallucinated penguin around the grounds of his family mansion. It's some of the most surreal, joyously stupid mainstream comedy ever captured on film — and it's no surprise critics responded with near-unanimous vitriol.
"Every once in awhile, a critic is forced to go back and reevaluate his track record," Roger Ebert observed on At the Movies in 1995. "And after seeing Billy Madison … Dumb & Dumber is beginning to look more and more like Citizen Kane to me."
Given Sandler's massive profile after a five-year run on Saturday Night Live, it's also no surprise that fans had the opposite reaction. Billy Madison — released four months before his final SNL episode — grossed more than $26 million in theaters, continuing the "deluge" of cinematic "dumbness" lamented by Time's Richard Schickel.
That's the story of Sandler's career: rabid fan devotion, rabid hatred from everyone else. And while the Sandman has crossed the line into outright stupidity over the decades, Billy Madison still strikes a sweet spot of absurdity: both gentle and raunchy, childlike and demented.
The movie follows Sandler as Billy: the day-drinking, freeloading, 27-year-old heir to a massive hotel chain. But when his wealthy father, Brian (Darren McGavin), finally loses patience with Billy's irritating behavior, he appoints Eric (Bradley Whitford) — the company's vice president and Billy's mortal enemy — to assume control of Madison Hotels. Billy, after begging his father to change course, learns he graduated high school only after Brian paid off all his teachers. So he devises a ludicrous proposal: He'll re-enroll in school, completing each of the grades (kindergarten through senior year) in two-week bursts, to prove his worth as a human being.
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Much about the plot itself is ridiculous. (Believing that teacher Veronica Vaughn, played by Bridgette Wilson, could fall in love with such an imbecile, even the sweet-natured one Billy reveals himself to be, is beyond a stretch.) But the movie's insanity is its strongest selling point.
Sandler, carrying over plenty of ridiculous faces and voices from his SNL run, infuses the role with the untamed energy of live sketch comedy or improv. And his script — co-written with former NYU roommate, longtime SNL writer and frequent future collaborator Tim Herlihy — allows him to iron home those Sandman trademarks: the gibberish, the petulant outbursts, the weird characters that feel imported from an alternate universe.
Director Tamra Davis — who who previously helmed Chris Rock's 1993 film, CB4 — captures the madness with minimal fuss, following Sandler and cast down their warped rabbit holes. The funniest stuff happens there: Billy comparing business ethics to the children's story "The Puppy Who Lost His Way," Miss Lippy plastering her face in glue, a party clown nonsensically singing about a brain hemorrhage, Chris Farley having a quiet meltdown behind the wheel of a school bus and an uncredited, slumming-it Steve Buscemi liberally applying lipstick to the soundtrack of ELO's "Telephone Line."
One of the movie's most famous scenes — for better or worse — involves Billy hurtling a dodgeball at six-year-olds during recess. "I'm hitting all those first-graders really hard with a dodgeball," Sandler recalled years later on Conan. "This is, like, 20 years ago, guys, so I'm just guessing. I hit some kid pretty hard, and he gets upset and starts crying. ... [I asked the parents], 'Didn't they read the script?' They go, 'They're six! They don't read yet.'
"I said, 'All right, I won't do it' or something," he continued. "I think I told the guys to roll anyway, and I nailed a bunch of kids. Something awful like that. But those kids grew up, and guess who they are today? I don't know."
Watch Adam Sandler on 'Conan'
The Sandler-Herlihy partnership has proved surprisingly durable in a Hollywood system of rewrites and development hells. The latter has gone on to write or co-write most of the actor's comedy vehicles, carrying on Billy Madison's legacy (Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer) and tarnishing it (Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds, Grown Ups 2).
Years later, Sandler can make any project he wants, whether it's an artful indie drama (2002's Punch-Drunk Love, 2019's Uncut Gems) or an irreverently stupid comedy (2015's The Ridiculous 6). But in our reboot-friendly age, it might be worth revisiting the surreal spirit of his early work.
"I don't think about [making a sequel], but those two [movies]— I loved doing them," Sandler told Screen Rant of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore in 2015. "They're big ideas. Going back to school was fun for Billy, and then Happy Gilmore playing golf — there's something there. I don't know. We'll see. I doubt it, though."