“Back to school. Back to school. To prove to dad that I’m not a fool.”
Judging by my Facebook timeline, virtually every friend sent their kid back to school this week. Photos of fresh-faced, semi-eager students with overstuffed backpacks flooded social media, with parents alternately crying (as they watch their babies grow up) and celebrating (as they get a few hours of peace and quiet now that the summer has drawn to a close).
So why am I thinking about a moronic man-child forced to repeat every grade in order to inherit his father’s multimillion-dollar corporation?
Because Billy Madison best represents, to me, the dread, anticipation, anxiety, loathing and eventual triumph that comes with the first day of school. It somehow captures all of the social obstacles kids are bound to encounter from kindergarten to high school… and it does it in one not-so-neat package funneled through Adam Sandler’s demented sense of humor.
We wanted to touch on the back-to-school process in the When Can I Watch column once again. (Last year, we highlighted Mean Girls and the winning documentary Spellbound.) And we may squeeze one more school-related column next week, as families adjust to the hectic school schedule. For now, let’s start by trading our lunchtime snacks, writing “Z” in cursive on the chalkboard, hiring Steve Buscemi to eliminate our rivals and figuring out when you can watch the PG-13 rated Billy Madison with your kids.
Green Lights: “If peeing your pants is cool, consider me Miles Davis.”
We have family friends who regularly have our oldest son over to their house for sleepovers. Whenever they do, they ask if they can rent a movie, and if the movie they’ve chosen is appropriate. For some reason, they always pick an Adam Sandler comedy. The first time it happened, they asked if the kids could watch Grown Ups. When I said I’d rather my kids not watch Grown Ups, they popped in Jack & Jill. So yes, my son has seen Jack & Jill, and I haven’t disowned him yet. That’s the definition of unconditional love.
Billy Madison’s a different beast. It and Happy Gilmore – Sandler’s first two starring vehicles – reflect the harmless side of Sandler’s comedy, tapping into the comedian’s goofy side without getting as mean-spirited as some of his later comedies.
It’s funny, the short-tempered golfer Sandler played in Happy Gilmore has come to define the comedian's bullish personality… which Paul Thomas Anderson brilliantly spun in a circle for the magnificent Punch-Drunk Love. But once your kids embrace toilet humor (because it’s bound to happen sooner or later), the adolescent jokes in Billy and Happy are going to be right up their alley.
The Billy Madison plot is ludicrous. Brian Madison (the great Darren McGavin) aims to retire, and plans to hand his hotel empire over to a serpentine corporate jerk, Eric Gordon (Bradley Whitford, having a blast devouring the scenery). Billy balks, but what can he say? He’s not qualified to run a company. He never even passed elementary school. So, to prove to his father that he’s worthy, Billy agrees to return to school and pass every grade before time runs out.
The unique scenario allows us to watch Billy prep for each grade, and the fresh set of obstacles that come with it. Kindergarten is characterized by hippie teachers and nap time. Third grade suggests bullying (“O’Doyle rules!”) and the horror of bringing the wrong snack for lunch. Believe it or not, Sandler and his cowriter, Tim Herlihy, have a firm understanding of the anxieties that come with each grade, and your own kids – not too far removed from each of these scenarios themselves – likely will find a lot to laugh at in Billy.
Also -- and I’m as surprised as you might be – there are a lot of enduring messages in Billy Madison. Billy becomes a role model for the picked-on outcasts in his class. In one odd scene, Billy pretends to wet his pants so his new friend isn’t embarrassed on a field trip. Late in the movie, Billy actually calls a man he tortured as a kid (Steve Buscemi), realizing the error of his ways. Yes, Sandler lusts after his third-grade teacher, Veronica Vaughn (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras), and our hero’s principal (Josh Mostel) has some pretty bizarre fantasies of his own. But Vaughn eventually snaps Billy out of his stupor, teaches him how to learn, and demands he meet his own potential in a final trivia competition against Eric, with the Madison empire resting in the balance.
Just how much questionable humor do you have to wade through to get to these lessons? Well, that’s a discussion best saved for our Red Flags section.
Red Flags: “Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”
Let’s not confuse Billy Madison with Stand and Deliver or Dead Poet’s Society. It’s still a somewhat raunchy and idiotic Adam Sandler movie that packs in a balance of obscure booze and drug jokes to appease his fans. Older kids will feel like they are getting away with watching something lewd when it’s actually far more tame than, say, Grown Ups or the R-rated That’s My Boy.
At the start of the film, Billy’s a drunken mess of a man who imagines he’s being taunted by a life-sized penguin. He talks like a fool, lights dog shit on fire on an old man’s porch, and embarrasses his father at virtually every turn.
Thankfully, Sandler “matures” about 15 minutes into the movie and largely ditches his trademark baby voice. But the rude humor routinely pokes into the film, giving parents possible pause.
For example, Billy’s kind but bizarre housemaid, Juanita (Theresa Merritt), asks him if he’d like her to take her top off. On a field trip, Billy’s dared to touch Veronica’s boobs on the bus. And later, when Veronica is tutoring Billy, she teases the removal of an article of clothing for each answer the pupil gets right. These jokes are all borderline, and Billy Madison never gets flat-out racy. But just the inclusion of some of these off-color gags – and the language throughout – have me saying that parents might want to zip through the comedy before popping it in with your kids to see if anything rubs you the wrong way.
That being said…
True to its rating, Billy Madison probably isn’t appropriate for kids under the age of 11 or 12. That puts them right in the fifth- and sixth-grade wheelhouse, when they’re likely making a lot of the same silly jokes Billy and his friends are making.
Billy Madison isn’t dirty, but it’s mildly racy. The language isn’t horrendous, but there are enough swears to give parents pause. And while it isn’t a true family comedy like Bedtime Stories, it’s tamer than The Longest Yard or Anger Management, and could make for a decent introduction to Sandler’s brand of humor once your kids are ready… before they eventually outgrow him (you know, by the age of 16 or 17).
Best of luck on a new school year to all of the students heading back to the classroom. As always, if you try Billy Madison with your kids, let me know how it goes.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just to name a few.