Perhaps more than any other comedian in film history, Adam Sandler has mined a lucrative career out of acting completely idiotic. Though there have been glimmers of intelligence and humanity in some of his work (particularly 'Punch-Drunk Love' and 'Click'), he's largely made his name being a doofus hero.
The pinnacle (or nadir, depending on your point of view) of Sandler's early cinematic efforts, 'Billy Madison' literally asks the question, "Are you smarter than a fifth grader"? Sandler stars as the titular low-IQ simpleton about to become the heir to the Madison Hotel millions. But one of the conglomerate's evil minions, Eric Gordon (Bradley Whitford) has other ideas, and fixes it so that in order for Billy to inherit his share of father's (Darren McGavin) fortune, he must to repeat all twelve grades of school. Can Billy earn his high school diploma in only 24 weeks, thwarting Eric's plot and finally winning the respect of dear old dad?
Though a little Sandler usually goes a long way for me, I will admit that I laughed a few times during 'Billy Madison' -- sometimes heartily. Sandler definitely has a knack for making even the lamest, most low-brow humor seem charmingly fun, just by the sheer innocence of his delivery. The grade school milieu is also a perfect playpen for his juvenile hijinks -- Sandler brings a sweetness to the material and wisely avoids most of the "retard jokes," etc. that often mar these types of flicks. 'Billy Madison' is certainly a one-joke premise, but Sandler manages to stretch it pretty successfully for 89 minutes.
Srill, I never found 'Billy Madison' to be genuinely clever or inspired. As strange as it may sound, there's an art to making smart satire out of cultural dumbness (see 'Pee-Wee's Big Adventure' or 'National Lampoon's Animal House'), but 'Billy Madison' never aims above the groin area. This is really the fault of the script, which pretty much wastes most of the supporting players and subplots. Though Whitford and especially McGavin (who was so memorable as the grumpy dad in 'A Christmas Story') are talented comic actors, they're given little to do here beyond overact in an effort to keep pace with Sandler. And the go-nowhere romance with Billy's hot teacher Veronica (Bridgette Wilson) seems like a deleted scene from another movie.
But bottom line, Sandler is pretty funny throughout most of 'Billy Madison.' If the sight of him doing a spastic dance to Culture Club's I'll Tumble 4 Ya, or going postal on a group of fourth graders and pummeling them with dodgeballs is your idea of uproarious comedy, then this is your flick. I personally wish 'Billy Madison' was a little bit smarter, but as far as dumb, dumb, dumb movies go, you certainly could do a lot worse.
The Disc: Vital Stats
Universal Studios releases 'Billy Madison' on Blu-ray a good three years after it debuted on HD DVD. Funnily enough, the HD DVD had more storage space, with a 30GB disc, rather than this Region A/B/C BD25. European countries have had this release for about a half a year (with a barebones release and slightly different artwork, which features a drawing of the penguin!) before the USA, same as 'Happy Gilmore' and 'Bulletproof.' The Euro releases feature actual cover art on the disc, rather than the generic clear and blue labeling found here, and they also feature a bevy of dub and subtitle options, making these imports much more world friendly.
The quality on the European releases rival what's found here, based on a selected scene comparison, so there really is not much in terms of debate over what release is best, just whichever one features audio options best suited for your needs!
Universal's transfer for 'Billy Madison' is, more or less, what one would expect from the company, with no new remastering for the title since its HD DVD bow. Do not mistake the lower score here as a sign that the red case is superior to the blue case. It's just that this doesn't pass mustard in today's high definition market the same as it did when there was much less out there. The VC-1, 1080p encode is just all sorts of ugly.
Add up the dirt speckles and faint scratches, light wobble, spotty contrast, random flatness, flushed colors, random black crush, and lack of real strong details, even in facial features, and you have a catalog title misfire. 'Billy Madison' is a constant reminder of what a bad catalog title looks like, as there are few standout shots in the runtime, but almost a constant bit of distraction. Sure, edges are fine and there doesn't appear to be any off grain issues, and textures can be quite strong, but this one is a definite disappointment.
I'd venture a guess that the DVD re-release in 2005 is the same source used here, and, while it may be a step up from that old, ratty original DVD, it sure as hell ain't solid by any means.
'Billy Madison' is given a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that leaves much to be desired.
Sure, the score has a few peaks, but it's also the most frequent rear speaker, as the light ambience found throughout the film is here one minute, gone another five. You can't call it hit or miss, because that's about a 50-50 ratio. It's more hit, miss, miss, miss, miss hit, miss, miss, and miss. Dialogue is always front and center, with some minor static behind it at times, while there's really not much at all going on with bass elements. This track is, simply put, a product of the times, when comedies weren't treated as they are now. It shows, severely. I have to wonder about the audio recording process for this film, as it can be pretty damned ugly to listen to at times.
This track will leave few impressed. Not even old man Herlihy.
Same ol', same ol'.
'Billy Madison' can become a bit embarrassing to watch these days. The man-child is perfected here, yes, but the acting is horrid, the plot is lame and haphazard, the characters one dimensional or less. The penguin rocks, but that's really all there is here, as this film feels like nothing more than an attempt to translate Adam Sandler comedy routines for film. The Blu-ray release is on par with the HD DVD, but nowadays, being as good as a three year old disc isn't all that great. Rent it, remind yourself of the one or two funny scenes that hold up, and forget about it.