Every few months, RollingStone.com shines a spotlight on a forgotten, neglected, overshadowed, under-appreciated and/or critically maligned film that we love in a series we’re calling “Be Kind, Rewind.” Our latest movie: the Adam Sandler comedy Billy Madison.
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”—Corinthians 13:11, King James Bible
“Stop looking at me, Swan!!!” — Billy Madison, to bath fixture
It’s the giant taunting penguin that does it. For the first few minutes, you could be watching any raunchcom that carbon-dates back to the late Eighties or early-to-mid-Nineties (in this case, 1995), the kind featuring a shirtless dude floating in a pool with a baseball cap on his head and a drink in his hand. The fact that he’s also singing to a bottle of sunscreen (“Suntan lotion/is good for me/you protect me/tee-hee-hee”) seems a little odd, but we’re still firmly in a rich fratboy fantasyland. The guy soon goes tearing across a mansion’s lawn on a golf cart past his wasted buddies and some stuffed-shirt servants, eager to thumb through the latest copy of Drunks Chicks by his mailbox.
And then it appears: a 10-foot tall penguin, standing in the driveway. As our inebriated hero begins to chase after the running flightless bird, it starts to dawn on you that this is not your typical gross-out, use-party-as-a-verb movie. You are watching something that’s truly, madly, deeply WTF warped.
When Billy Madison hit theaters 20 years ago, Adam Sandler was already a breakout star on Saturday Night Live; movies were the next logical step, so the comedian and his ex-roommate — SNL writer Tim Herlihy — came up with the story designed to jumpstart a big-screen career move. The gist: A spoiled, silver-spoon party animal is set to inherit the family’s lucrative hotel business, despite having zero interest in anything not involving daiquiris, Nintendo or nudie mags. In order to prove he’s a better candidate than the company’s sneering yuppie vice president, however, Billy has to repeat kindergarten through high school again. For our dimwitted hero, this is damned near a Herculean feat.
Anyone now familiar with the cinema du Sandler might hazard a guess about what lays in store: aggressively coming on to/charming the romantic interest (Bridgette Wilson, pre-Sampras), knocking kids out with dodge balls, line-readings that go from toddler-ish falsetto sing-song to SUDDEN! AGGRAVATED! YELLING! But for every hint of the lowest-common-denominator assault that Sandler would later unleash on moviegoers, there are glimpses of a once-in-a-generation comic weirdness in its pure, uncut form. It’s not just the least curdled and thus, by default, the best “Adam Sandler” movie, though it is undoubtedly that. It’s also a preview of “The Price is wrong, bitch!” beatdowns and in-drag-wooing-of-Al-Pacino lowlights to come, and a what-if peek at the glorious road not traveled.