Billy Madison (1995)
Written by Adam Sandler & Tim Herlihy
Directed by Tamra Davis
I loved this movie when I was 14-18 years old. It had been almost two decades since I last watched it, and I was wondering if it would hold up. The Adam Sandler presented on movie screens then was very different from the version of him we get now. Most of the time, you get Sandler in an adult/parent version of his old persona, more cooly disaffected and still yelling a lot. Other times you get a performance that challenges your preconceived notions of him (Punch-Drunk Love, Uncut Gems). But this was the baby Sandler, fresh off of Saturday Night Live and playing a particular Generation X comedy schtick.
Billy Madison (Sandler) is a man-child living off the wealth his father has amassed from a hotel empire. Billy lays around in the pool, drinking until he passes out and palling around with his idiot friends. As Mr. Madison (Darren McGavin) decides to retire and pass on his company, he realizes Billy isn’t prepared and chooses slimy executive Eric. Billy protests and learns his father paid his son’s way through school, which gives the young loser an idea. If he can pass every grade from 1st through 12th in two week periods for each class, Billy will inherit the company. Thus begins the strange journey of this drunk buffoon through the school system.
I definitely did not laugh as much in this viewing of Billy Madison as I did when I was a kid, but that could be said about a lot of things. I tried to revisit G.I. Joe once and, because I’d learned what good writing was, couldn’t make it through one episode. You grow older, and some things age with you and other stuff you age out of. That doesn’t mean I didn’t laugh at all, there are some more subtle choices Sandler and other actors make that I didn’t pick up on when I was younger. The broad jokes in the movies just aren’t the sort of thing I still find knee-slappingly hilarious.
One aspect that I did note is that so much of meme humor can be seen percolating in films of this time. Billy Madison is chock full of non-sequiturs, moments that are totally disconnected from the story. This is the “random” comedy beloved by middle-schoolers everywhere who think the funniest thing is someone doing or saying something unrelated to the conversation. I think middle schoolers now might be a little too savvy and sophisticated to eat this up. The internet and the changing landscape of media have sharpened people’s perceptions of humor. I suspect most of Sandler’s success now comes from aging Gen Xers still loving his style of comedy.
Of the gross-out dumb comedies of this era, I argue Dumb & Dumber is, ironically, a smarter movie. The Farrelly Brothers, of whom I am not great fans do at least blend humor, story, and character into a single unit. But Billy Madison shows something all SNL-derived movies have as a problem; the writers are used to writing skits, so these films plots are clearly segmented into episodes. Because of this, the plot movies in stops and starts, significant elements are introduced in the third act to wrap things up conveniently. You don’t watch these for a great story, but maybe you will get a chuckle.
Now, looking at the movie’s portrayal of elementary school, I actually saw some more realistic things than Kindergarten Cop. When Billy arrives at his 1st-grade class, I noticed that the design and layout of the room were pretty on par with how public school classrooms look. The anchor charts and organizational tubs all felt very real. Miss Lippy, the Kindergarten teacher, was remarkably faithful to real life with her deep well of positivity and enthusiasm. I can’t attest to the reality of smearing paste on your face while relaxing in the classroom, so that’s a toss-up.
The grade we see the most of is third due to Billy’s burgeoning relationship with Miss Veronica Vaughn. We honestly don’t get to see much of what happens in the classroom, though. There’s a reading from a textbook, some cursive handwriting, and a field trip. The passage from a textbook is definitely something becoming passe, in my state, there’s been a shift in the last decade to Interactive Read Alouds, Shared Reading (grade level whole class), and Guided Reading (small group work on their Instructional level). It doesn’t appear Miss Vaughn does these things. When Miss Vaughn is out, and the principal substitute teaches, and that has never happened in my experience as an educator. If a substitute teacher cannot be found, then the class typically splits, and other teachers in the grade level take on 3-5 students for the day.
The field trip has some very correct elements but also some nonsense. There appears to be only one class going on this field trip. Unless the school is tiny and has only one third grade class, this is unrealistic. The entire grade level would be expected to go on the trip. I also think the students would be much louder on the bus than the film shows them. Billy getting up in the middle of the drive to talk to Miss Vaughn is a big no-no. The lunches getting stolen would have been a much bigger deal because the Food Services department in school districts do not play around about kids being fed.
I have also been wondering about something I saw in Kindergarten Cop and in Billy Madison. I was homeschooled my entire childhood and into high school, so maybe this was normal, but were children just left alone in the classroom without adult supervision often? Both movies have this scene. Maybe this happened? It seems insanely unsafe with children this age, but that has really stuck out to me.