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He's heir to the Madison Hotel millions, but the only subjects Billy has studied lately are babes and booze. When Brian Madison informs his goofball son that he plans to turn over his Fortune 500 company to a scheming vice president, Billy makes the bet of his life: He's going back to school--grades 1 through 12--in 24 weeks! Can this bona fide blockhead win his father's respect, the family fortune and the love of his beautiful teacher?
For more about Billy Madison and the Billy Madison Blu-ray release, see Billy Madison Blu-ray Review published by Michael Reuben on May 26, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Director: Tamra Davis
Writers: Adam Sandler, Tim Herlihy
Starring: Adam Sandler, Darren McGavin, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, Bradley Whitford, Josh Mostel, Norm MacDonald
» See full cast & crew
Billy Madison Blu-ray Review
Man-child in the land of comic premise
Reviewed by Michael Reuben, May 26, 2011
Critics often dismiss Adam Sandler as a one-note comic who constantly returns to the same character: a child trapped in a man's body, given to fits of temper and wildly inappropriate behavior. But many enduring comic careers have been founded on some sort of archetype, whether it's Rodney Dangerfield's "no respect" or Don Rickle's abrasive king of insults. The longevity of Sandler's career is impressive by any standard, but it's even more so when compared to the many failures and flameouts of other Saturday Night Live alums. Only Will Farrell, Eddie Murphy and Chevy Chase have managed to keep going for so long (and the latter two have spent much time in "whatever happened to him?" limbo).
Billy Madison was Sandler's first feature film as writer and leading man. While no great shakes at the box office in 1995, it has remained a perennial on video, with multiple DVD releases, an HD DVD in 2007, and now a Blu-ray. I'm not enough of a Sandler fan to proclaim the film a guilty pleasure, but it has amusing moments, and you can see Sandler hard at work assembling elements from various SNL characters in ways that would ultimately pay off in later hits like The Wedding Singer, Big Daddy and Anger Management. Sandler may appear to be casually tossing off his routines, but show business endurance like his doesn't happen unless you work at it. And there always has to be a first movie.
Billy Madison takes place in an alternate reality that might as well be a fairy tale. Billy (Sandler) is the only son of a hotel magnate, Brian Madison (Darren McGavin, perfectly deadpan). He lives an idle and pampered life, drinking, soaking up rays and playing pranks with his friends, Jack (Mark Beltzman) and Frank (fellow SNL alum Norm MacDonald). Madison Sr. wants to retire and hand over the company to Billy, but since the son hasn't even attained the emotional maturity of Arthur Bach, that just isn't possible. There are references to a mother who helped build the hotel empire, but she's no longer in the picture and seems to have left no impression (a common phenomenon in Sandler's films). The most influential woman in Billy's life is the randy housekeeper, Juanita (Theresa Merritt, impressively balancing right at the edge of facetious).
The plot, such as it is, is set in motion by Madison Sr.'s two lieutenants, one good, the other bad. The good one, Carl, is played by lanky character actor Larry Hankin, and he wants Billy to grow up and take his father's place. The bad one, Eric, is played by Bradley Whitford, in the days when he was still primarily a comic actor before The West Wing gave him the illusion of gravitas, and he chomps with gusto into the role of a schoolyard bully in a business suit. Indeed, one of Eric's more subversive functions in Billy Madison is to suggest that Billy might actually be qualified to run the company, because business is just a slightly more gentrified variant of boys being boys.
After discovering that his father paid off every single teacher to pass him from kindergarten onwards, Billy offers to repeat K through 12 on his own, two weeks for each grade. If he passes, the company is his. This ludicrous setup allows Sandler free reign to behave childishly, but it also lets him perform lengthy scenes with children, something for which he has a gift and to which he's returned repeatedly in subsequent films. Many of Billy Madison's best scenes involve Sandler interacting with kids and eliciting their natural reactions.
Of course there's a girl. Of course she's beautiful. And of course she disapproves of Billy but is quickly won over by his "heart" and boyish charm. Sandler's films are filled with such idealized kewpie dolls, and it wasn't until Funny People (which he didn't write) that Sandler let himself explore the darker underside of that fantasy. The girl in Billy Madison is Veronica Vaughn, the third grade teacher (Bridgette Wilson from Last Action Hero and I Know What You Did Last Summer), and she's one of the tougher babes in the Sandler canon, possibly because Billy Madison is the rare Sandler film directed by a woman (Tamra Davis). I doubt that a male director would have staged the scene where Veronica beats the crap out of Billy with such obvious enthusiasm.
Billy's progression through school involves little more than a series of sketches with a smattering of plot. Some are amusing, and some fall flat. (A lot depends on personal taste; the bits with the late Chris Farley's bus driver might work for someone else, but they don't for me, because I could never warm to Farley.) As Billy's success begins to appear likely, the dastardly Eric schemes to undermine him. He devises an unlikely but goofy plan involving the school's principal (the reliable Josh Mostel) and, in a plot turn that no one bothers to explain very clearly, ends up opposing Billy in an academic "decathalon" that, in classic movie fashion, concludes before a school assembly that seems to include grade school, high school and the executive suite of Madison Hotels. One of the best bits in the film comes courtesy of an uncredited Steve Buscemi as a former classmate of Billy's from high school.
Director Davis took over the film after shooting began, and she notes repeatedly in her commentary that she didn't choose many elements of the design. But her influence can be felt in the film's lightness of touch and in its obvious affection for Billy and his friends, even at their most childish. After getting her start directing music videos for bands like NWA, Sonic Youth and Tone Loc, Davis graduated to feature films with low budgets and a "youth" orientation. By the time she came to Billy Madison, she was married to Mike D of the Beastie Boys, and her preceding feature was the Chris Rock vehicle CB4. In film school, she'd befriended one of the art world's most infamous overgrown children, Jean-Michel Basquiat, about whom she would eventually make the superb documentary, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. In short, Davis had the perfect resumé for handling the boy-men of Billy Madison's world with appropriate sympathy but enough distance to find the comic beats in their anarchic behavior.
Davis' music background proved useful as well. Some of the film's most surprising elements involve random eruptions of music: Billy breaking into dance moves to a song that only he hears (along with the audience), or a full-fledged production number that falls somewhere between Broadway and MTV. Davis stages these moments simply and without fuss, and they work because she's not afraid of them. Too many directors would have underlined them, and they would have fallen flat.
Billy Madison Blu-ray, Video Quality
While I don't have the HD DVD for comparison, one can reasonably assume that this is the same hi-def transfer previously released by Universal, and it's typical of Uni's repurposed Blu-rays, which is to say that it's serviceable but undistinguished. Black levels are adequate, and detail is generally good, although softness is evident in the fine detail of many wide shots. Whether this is a product of the original photography or a result of the transfer and mastering process was impossible to tell. I did not see any telltale signs of filtering or noise reduction to suggest that detail had been eliminated to facilitate fitting the film onto a BD-25.
Occasional shots betray the instability associated with gate weave, which is not unusual with a film made before digital intermediates became standard. The artifact is fleeting and occasional; most viewers probably won't notice it.
Where the Blu-ray excels is in its reproduction of the film's color palette. Davis took full advantage of the artificiality of Billy's world so that wherever possible the frame is filled with strong colors. At times, the cheerful brightness makes the film look like a television show (and, indeed, DP Victor Hammer would go on to give a similar look to some interesting TV series, including Veronica Mars and Wonderfalls). But the approach pays off in elaborate sequences like the fantasy parties that Billy throws for himself every time he passes another grade, complete with clowns, fair rides and jet skis in the Madison estate's water fountains. The Blu-ray reproduces all these hues nicely, without oversaturation or bleeding.
Billy Madison Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The DTS lossless mix gets the job done but doesn't offer much in the way of surround ambiance or rear channel support. Dialogue is clear and firmly anchored to the center. Randy Edelman's utilitarian score is well represented, but the real standout is the oddball selection of songs by Culture Club, the Cars, the Jackson 5, Electric Light Orchestra, Styx and, of course, Sandler himself. Sandler's own musical tastes have often informed his films, and Billy Madison is as much an example as The Wedding Singer. Having the songs come through with impact is essential to the track.
Billy Madison Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Billy Madison Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
As their careers evolve, film actors often acquire a patina of identifications that changes how we experience their earlier roles. When we watch Bogart's early gangster films, it's impossible not to see the future Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe or Casablanca's Rick under the hoodlum. When Monroe appears as Miss Casswell in All About Eve, it's hard not to hear echoes of Lorelei Lee or How to Marry a Millionaire's Pola Debevoise. And one day, mark my words, Adam Sandler will be an old man accepting lifetime achievement awards, and speakers will be praising his early "breakthrough" work in Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and even Bulletproof, which by then will be viewed through eyes conditioned by films we have yet to experience. I already know that I can never look at these films the same way ever since Sandler chose to explore different aspects of his trademark persona in Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me and Funny People. Billy Madison may be no more than "basic" Sandler, but basic Sandler keeps getting more interesting. Worth revisiting if you liked it the first time; worth a look if you've liked anything Sandler's done since. Either way, the Blu-ray won't disappoint.
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Billy Madison Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Buy Two Select Universal Blu-rays at Amazon, Get $8 Off (Expired) - May 9, 2011
Amazon is currently offering customers who purchase two select Universal Blu-ray releases $8 off their total purchase price at checkout. The deal is notable in that five of the fourteen eligible titles are upcoming releases: American Graffiti, Legend, Billy Madison, ...
• Trio of Adam Sandler Movies on Blu-ray in June - March 28, 2011
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