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Billy Madison Print E-mail
Monday, 01 October 2007

Image Billy Madison (Adam Sandler) is the son of Brian Madison (Darren McGavin), the rich magnate behind the Madison hotel chain. Faced with his imminent retirement, the elder Madison is pressed to make a decision about who will take over the company when he retires: one of his executives, Eric Gordon (Bradley Whitford) or his immature layabout son, Billy. The twenty-something Billy lives a life of drunken leisure at the Madison estate, so his father becomes wary of leaving the corporation in his hands, especially since Billy only made it through elementary school, high school and college because his father paid off the teachers. Determined to prove himself to his father and keep the company in the family, Billy makes a deal with his father: he’ll take a crash course in all twelve grades, learning each grade in two weeks and passing an exam for each. If Billy graduates all grades successfully, his father agrees to leave the company to him. Attempting to thwart his plans is executive Gordon, determined to acquire the company by any means necessary. On his side, is initially reluctant teacher Ms. Vaughn (Bridgette Wilson), who quickly falls for Billy and keeps him on track.

This was Adam Sandler’s first starring vehicle, after gaining a foothold with audiences by his work on “Saturday Night Live” and with supporting roles in theatrical comedies like “Airheads.” It’s an awkward start. The character’s behavior has no consistency or coherence. It’s a wildly ragged performance and Billy’s character is never clearly defined—at times he seems grossly immature, at others, brain damaged or retarded. We’re never quite sure what is pretense and what is the character’s real nature.

Based on the commentary track, this inconsistency derives from Sandler’s desire to do anything for a laugh, regardless of how crazy, illogical, embarrassing or off-the-wall…and the director’s indulgence in allowing anything to happen without guiding the performance or reining it in. The film’s herky-jerky character continuity and loose story are just sloppy and messy, not truly anarchic, which seems the stated goal. The Marx Bros. and other comedians of that era (like the Ritz Bros. or Wheeler and Woolsey) specialized in the comedy of anarchy, where a story would pause for brief side trips like an escalating confrontation with a peanut vendor or an unmotivated song, but there was clearly a director at the helm and consistency in the performances. Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly is the same character in every scene, infused with Marx’s personality—witty, lusty, sarcastic and playful; the other members of the troupe are equally consistent. Those characters are boldly delineated “types,” but their stable personalities provide a sturdy base for the surrounding chaos. Not so here. Bradley Whitford plays an oily evil executive but his character’s childish asides and occasional lapses don’t make for a believable character. McGavin and most of the supporting actors are relatively straight and help hold things together, but the weakness and messiness of the central character makes it hard to maintain interest in the story or care much about its resolution.

Not that the story is that involving or important. It’s clearly there for set pieces and gags to carom off, but since those aren’t particularly funny, it makes the whole enterprise into a pointless inert nothing. Despite the ragged nature of the film, it would all be excused if it were funnier, but it’s just passable. It’s far from hilarious (some will find it an embarrassing chore to sit through) but does have a few bits of non-sequitur humor that are amusing, such as Sandler’s over-the-top attempt to warn kid about the horrors of the higher grades, the housekeeper Juanita’s lusting after him, Chris Farley’s performance as an intense, on-edge school bus driver and the fate of the bullying O’Doyle family. The scenes with Steve Buscemi are dryly funny. It’s not a patch on “Happy Gilmore,” which is far better.

The HD DVD release is bright, sharp and detailed with rich, vivid colors and a wide palette. The source photography is slightly grainy, and the occasional shots showcase less crispness than the rest of the feature. It’s a pleasing leap in quality from a standard definition release—the HD DVD has the edge in overall image stability and clarity. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 track is fine. The use of discrete surround channels in the mix is minimal, but the stereo separation in the front channels is rich, detailed and crisp. Dialogue tends to be steered to the center channel with music and sound effects given a great amount of spatial presence. It’s an undemanding, well-balanced rendition of the original track and it’s accurately presented here.

Director Tamra Davis is the sole participant in the commentary track and she’s a relaxed, pleasant commentator. She has a tendency to leave short gaps in the commentary, establishing a pattern of commenting on a particular scene when it begins, then remaining quiet until another scene begins. The gaps are brief enough so they’re more of a mild quibble than an annoyance. Davis admits that she had a bit of a crush on Sandler during filming, and explains how she was hired for the job (replacing a director who began the film but who wasn’t working out), and the atmosphere she fostered and encouraged on set. You may find yourself becoming argumentative with the commentary simply because your learn the reasons why areas in the film don’t work. She indulged Sandler and company’s every whim, and her uncritical acceptance and satisfaction with the resultant hodge-podge can prove maddening, especially in scenes that are more annoying than funny.

The deleted scenes are substantial (32 minutes), and grouped by theme or scene location instead of where they would be placed chronologically in the film. They’re derived from a bleary workprint videotape. There are more machinations by Bradley Whitford and more of Josh Mostel’s “Revolting Blob” subplot. An overabundance of scenes focusing on Juanita’s lusty attentions towards Billy are included, and were rightfully deleted. The scenes are a welcome inclusion for Sandler completists, but there’s no real comedic gold here. The cover art replicates the original theatrical poster. The trailer is unfortunately not included.

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