Universal // 1995 // 90 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // June 7th, 2011
Billy Madison is Special Education.
In 1995 Adam Sandler went back to school, but the rest of us were the ones who picked up the bill with his breakout comedy Billy Madison. Featuring Sandler in his quintessential goofball role and a bevy of other Saturday Night Live players (including Norm MacDonald and Chris Farley), this one shoots for valedictorian on Blu-ray care of Universal Home Entertainment.
Billy Madison is the epitome of "spoiled rich." The apparent heir to a successful hotel chain, Billy lives the good life at his father's mansion drinking, carousing and just plain goofing off. When one of Madison Sr.'s right hand men (Larry Hankin, the fake Kramer on Seinfeld) suggests Billy grow up and take over the family business, Billy offers up a suggestion to prove he can handle being in charge of a multi-million dollar company: go back and repeat grades 1-12 in just 24 weeks. If Billy doesn't complete this assignment, the company falls into the hands of the scheming Eric (Bradley Whitford, The West Wing), another of Mr. Madison's business associates. Billy's father (Darren McGavin, A Christmas Story) agrees to this deal. As the immature and emotionally stunted Billy struggles to get through each grade, he finds himself attracted to a young teacher (Bridgette Wilson, House on Haunted Hill) and fending off mockery and laugher at every turn. Can Billy make the grade or is he doomed to become the world's oldest 3rd grade dropout?
Billy Madison is one of the worst comedies I've ever had to sit through and that's not a phrase I use lightly. I mean, c'mon -- I sat through Pootie Tang, so I know of what I speak.
Billy Madison is the movie that started Adam Sandler's career ball(s) rolling (sorry, I couldn't resist). Although the Saturday Night Live veteran had been featured in a couple of early '90s comedies (most prominently the flops Airheads and Mixed Nuts), Billy Madison -- along with 1996's golf farce Happy Gilmore -- would be the movie that would provide Sandler with his breakthrough into public consciousness. Sadly, his bright star didn't burn out and go the way of Yahoo Serious or Pauly Shore; Sandler is still as popular as ever and still making movies that kill brain cells with each viewing.
I would like to tell you that I walked into Billy Madison with an open mind and zero prejudices, but that's just not true -- I personally cannot stand Adam Sandler and his brand of frat boy comedy. I have never understood the reason for his popularity and find his "schtick" to be grating, annoying and close to the edge of insufferable. Although I've found a scant few of his films to be tolerable (Click being the best of the lot), for the most part I just can't fathom his appeal. Billy Madison feels like a waste of all talents involved, including respectable actors who seem to be slumming for a paycheck. It's a shame that so many good character actors end up languishing inside such a moronic movie. Bradley Whitford, Darren McGavin and Bridgette Wilson all seem to know that they're caught in what is clearly a weigh station for their next substantial, personally rewarding acting project.
Comedy is subjective; what makes one person laugh isn't necessarily funny to the next guy. I am the next guy. I didn't laugh once during Billy Madison's run time. Not a single solitary time. The writing in Billy Madison -- as with most of Sandler's comedies -- is scattershot and filled with random jokes, most of which pertain to Sandler eating paste or throwing rubber dodge balls as elementary school children. Why is this funny? Because he's acting like a child! I mean, that has to be funny, right? RIGHT?!? Watching a grown man act like a child can be funny, but not when it's surrounded by stale clichés and characters as wooden as a pair of Dutch clogs.
What I find most grating is Sandler's verbal delivery. If you've seen an Adam Sandler movie you know what I'm talking about -- flapping hand gestures and a weird, man child voice crossed with a slight lisp. It's not amusing to just have a funny voice -- you have to have a reason for a funny voice. Sandler just pulls out his silly vocal tics at whim without rhyme or reason. In the middle of a totally normal exchange he suddenly becomes the village idiot for no reason whatsoever except, I dunno, someone at Universal paid him a lot of money to act like a retarded monkey. It just makes no sense whatsoever! (If you could see me writing this, you'd see me shaking my head and throwing my arms up in frustration).
Sandler's cardinal error is mistaking yelling for translated laughter. I'm no professional funnyman, but I believe one rule of humor will always hold true: yelling for the sake of being LOUD is not funny in and of itself. You have to have a reason why you are yelling for it to carry comedic weight. You see, if I just suddenly started TYPING LIKE THIS IN ALL CAPS IT ISN'T VERY FUNNY, IS IT? No, it's not. Note to Mr. Sandler: the same rule applies onscreen. Have a reason for screaming at other characters or your just look like a desperate actor who is trying to hard to make people laugh.
It's interesting to compare a movie like Billy Madison to the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle '80s vehicle Back to School, which takes the same theme (a man goes back to finish school) but makes it far funnier and a lot more entertaining. The writing in Back to School is sharp, amusing and serves the story. Billy Madison just throws a lot of shit at the wall in the hopes that some of it will stick. This is well and good for a Zucker Brothers movie (i.e., Airplane! or The Naked Gun) but implodes when you try to create any dramatic tension, characters or a cohesive plot thread. The final insult to the audience is a musical number at the end of the film featuring children, a black maid and a drunken clown. It's poorly choreographed and feels very out of place in the final film. There's simply no need for it. Which is ultimately how I feel about Billy Madison: it's a failure in every way conceivable.
I leave you with a quote from one of the movie's characters, which could easily be slightly tweaked to how I feel about Billy Madison: "Mr. Madison, what you just said is one the most insanely idiotic things I've ever heard. At no point during your rambling, incoherent response were you ever close to anything that would be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it."
Billy Madison was originally released on the HD DVD format years ago, and fans of the Sandler's shenanigans will be happy to see this title finally make it to Blu-ray. That's the good news, and now for the bad: while this picture is certainly a step up from the standard DVD format, it's hardly at a level to blow your socks off. It's obvious that Billy Madison is an older catalog release and it's low budget origins show at the seams. There are moments when the image looks slightly soft, and often the picture lacks any true depth or 'pop'. Colors are well saturated and the image is crisp during many of the outdoor scenes. Overall Universal has served a fine if only serviceable transfer.
The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio in 5.1 and finds its biggest boost in the rock songs that play in the background (like Billy Squire's "The Stroke" that plays over the end credits). The rest of the film is hardly anything to write home about -- the front and center speakers are all engaged throughout the film without much help from the rear speakers (save for some random surround moments and ambient noise). Also included on this disc are English, French and Spanish subtitles, as well as a French 5.1 DTS soundtrack and a Dolby 2.0 mix.
The extra features on this disc are mostly holdovers from the previous edition, including a 2005 commentary by director Tamara Davis (who discusses coming as director after the shoot had already begun), around a half hour of deleted scenes (standard def) and four minutes of outtakes and goofs by Sandler and the cast.
If you've read this far you probably can guess what my summation is of Billy Madison: dumber than a bag of hammers, and only half as interesting. Sandler fans will rejoice with the release of this film in high definition. For the rest of us, this is like Freddy Kruger sized nails on a very, very long chalkboard.
Billy Madison is found guilty on just about every count imaginable.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes