Like most comic actors who made their fortunes playing wild men, buffoons, or both, Adam Sandler has spent the years since his breakthrough either trying to distance himself from his early success, or desperately trying to recapture it. It’s odd, then, to look back at Sandler’s early hits and remember when he was more unselfconsciously clownish. When he started, Sandler thought the height of comedy was a funny face and a funny voice—and he was more than willing to scale those heights over and over for 90 minutes straight.
Re-watching the 1995 star vehicle Billy Madison (newly out on Blu-ray, along with its 1996 follow-up, Happy Gilmore), what’s most striking is how beholden Sandler and his writing partner Tim Herlihy already were to certain comic and narrative elements that would endure into their more “mature” era. The Billy Madison soundtrack is peppered with ’80s pop hits—a future hallmark of The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates, and 2011’s Just Go With It—and the story sees the hero involved in an aw-shucks junior-high-ish romance with an agreeable bombshell. (Bridgette Wilson, this time around.) The premise is one of Sandler’s most high-concept: He plays a filthy-rich slacker who agrees to repeat first through 12th grade in 24 weeks, to prove he’s competent enough to take over his dad’s hotel empire. It’s a sturdy story, with a good villain in corporate jerk Bradley Whitford, and a meaningful message in the way former cool guy Billy winds up identifying with the misfits during his second time around in school. But Billy Madison’s tone is wildly uneven—it comes off as a goofy, kid-friendly Richie Rich fantasy one minute, and a raunchy stoner comedy the next, albeit with booze in place of pot. And Sandler’s lead performance is deeply irritating, marred by mugging so relentless that it’s hard not to be sympathetic to Billy’s dad when he pleads, “Can’t you just stop for two seconds?”
As a businessman, the real Sandler is no idiot, so he toned down his shtick considerably for Happy Gilmore, and had his first substantial hit. Sandler’s Happy Gilmore is a hockey player with a violent temper, which gets him into trouble when he takes his spectacular slap-shot to the PGA Tour. But aside from the blue rages, he’s an ordinary guy, not a blithering idiot like Billy Madison. While there’s some out-of-place Farrelly-brothers-style silliness on the periphery of Happy Gilmore, for the most part, the movie plays as a middle-of-the-road slobs-vs.-snobs sports comedy, with the snobs represented by ace golfer Christopher McDonald. And yes, there’s a love interest: a tour publicist played by Julie Bowen, whom Happy courts by taking her to an ice rink and playing “Endless Love” over the PA. (Again: junior-high-ish.) Happy Gilmore is never as funny as it could be, but it’s amiable enough, and it works in a by-the-numbers kind of way, never deviating too far from formula. It’s a testament to Sandler’s shrewdness, and a key stepping-stone to a career soon to be filled with careful moves mixed with only the occasional bold leap.
Key features: A short blooper reel, a sparse commentary track by director Tamra Davis, and half an hour of excruciatingly bad deleted scenes on Billy Madison; a briefer and better batch of bloopers and deleted scenes round out Happy Gilmore.