|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 24 February 1998|
Adam Sandler must have enjoyed making Happy Gilmore, because he more or less remade it two years later as The Waterboy. He dumbed it down (not easy), broadened the humor and increased the vulgarity. But the most surprising change is that in Happy Gilmore, the terrible temper of the title character -- played by Sandler, of course -- is a defect in Happy Gilmore and a virtue in The Waterboy. This does not represent progress.
If you're an Adam Sandler fan, you've already seen Happy Gilmore, probably many times. If you're not an Adam Sandler fan, you might be surprised: Happy Gilmore is quite entertaining; along with The Wedding Singer, this has appeal well beyond the Sandler fans. The basic story is the classic, timeless "person who learns better" combined with the underdog story that Sandler has trotted out every time so far.
Happy Gilmore -- the name is a joke -- dreamed of being a hockey player his entire life, and has adopted what he sees as the hockey player approach to life: he gets very mad very quickly, and is inclined to smash things, including people, when he's angry. Which is often. The problem is that except for his powerful slap shot, Happy is a lousy hockey player; he can't skate, he has no idea of team spirit, and he's inclined to punch the coach.
When his Granny (Frances Bay) can't pay $270,000 in back taxes -- a rather unlikely sum -- she loses her house and all her possessions, and has to move into an old folks' home. At the same time, on a dare, Happy takes a swing at a golf ball, and sends it a country mile, again and again. He meets one-handed golf pro Chubbs (Carl Weathers), who thinks Happy has the making of a golf champ himself, if he can curb his temper and actually learn to play the game, instead of just hitting the ball so damned far. But Happy insists he's really a hockey player -- until he learns that he might win enough money in a golf tournament to save his Granny's home.
The plot of Happy Gilmore follows pretty much the route you'd expect. The boisterous, blue-collar Happy comes into conflict with arrogant, aristocratic Shooter McGavin (a well-cast Christopher McDonald), who despises Happy and who expects to win the tournament himself. Happy begins a tentative romance with golf publicist Virginia (Julie Bowen), and continues on the tour, despite ups and downs of one sort and another. The ending is, of course, predictable.
The script by Tim Herlihy and Adam Sandler makes some surprisingly interesting points. Golf, like tennis, is a game for the upper class; Happy invigorates it because his crude, outgoing style attracts Regular People -- there are tailgate picnics at the country clubs, and guys with pot guts and tattoos follow Happy's progress. Though it's really a comedy about golf and the players, and it shouldn't be taken too seriously, it does have something to say: it isn't about a clash between the social classes; it's about erasing the distinction between the social classes as represented by golf.
But it works both ways. Happy does not, and cannot, succeed on the golf links until he finally lets go of the idea that he's really a hockey player, with a hockey player attitude. He has to learn that while getting angry is okay, outbursts are not, and that he has to play golf by the rules of golf. He has to raise himself not to Shooter's level, but to the level of a professional golfer -- while still retaining the skills and attitudes that made him successful in the first place.
The movie is studded with surprisingly funny scenes. Director Dennis Dugan plays a golf official who argues with Bowen, while in the background a telecast of the tournament continues. It's Happy, giving into his rage, but all his profanities are bleeped; this goes on and on in the background until the bleeping becomes funny in and of itself. It's a very inventive touch, exactly the kind of thing that Sandler's detractors tend to say he can't come up with.
In most comedies along these lines, the upstart, working-class hero would be winning all the tournaments, but Happy isn't; he's doing well, but rarely comes in first. He does end up with a car full of those giant checks they create for photo opportunities, of course, but even those who don't come in first get well paid. This is not only more realistic, but provides for a better final showdown between Happy and Shooter.
On the other hand, Sandler needs to learn that mumbling isn't a great comic trait, and that his audiences really don't need to see him beat the crap out of bigger guys. In fact, the funniest fight in Happy Gilmore ends with Sandler being whipped soundly -- by aging game show host Bob Barker, who's clearly having a great time.
Christopher McDonald is very good as Happy's main opponent -- McDonald is always better when playing a bastard than a nice guy (as in the Leave It to Beaver movie) -- but mostly the cast is merely serviceable. There are some good comic performances studded here and there, such as Joe Flaherty's heckler, Kevin Nealon's golfer and the unbilled Ben Stiller as a sadistic orderly at the old folks' home. It's as if Sandler and his team didn't give much of a damn about anything that didn't feature Sandler himself, prominently.
The tournaments supposedly move all over the United States, but it looks suspiciously like Vancouver, B.C. no matter where they are. Nonetheless, being set on golf links, which are inherently pretty, gives Happy Gilmore a breezy, attractive look unlike Sandler's other movies.
The DVD is itself nothing special; there are the usual biographies and language options. It's too bad Universal didn't think it necessary to interview Sandler, or at least have him provide running commentary on the film. On the other hand, the viewer can provide extra fun without Universal's help: for whatever reason, Happy Gilmore has a lot of flubs, goofs and blunders.