[2 August 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Who is the real Adam Sandler? Is he the bitter, angry superstar that’s depicted in the recent Judd Apatow “dramedy” Funny People? Or is he “The Stud Boy”, the inherently goofy sidekick that stole almost every episode of MTV’s ‘80s trivia game show Remote Control? Somewhere in between Little Nicky and Punch-drunk Love, Spanglish and Happy Gilmore lies the answer, apparently. Unfortunately, the general public only seems to respond to him when he’s infantile, cartoonish, and borderline brain dead. Take The Waterboy for example. It represents one of the former SNL and stand-up’s biggest hits. It also contains one of his most insane performances ever. Yet when one looks closely at the film itself, it’s obvious why it succeeded…and it has much more to do with sports than with scatological humor.
Sandler plays Bobby Boucher, a local Louisiana bayou dimwit whose meddling mother believes that everything is “from the devil”. As a result, her aging son has led a very sheltered life. Bobby has become the ‘waterboy’ for his small town’s college football team and he thoroughly loves what he does. Even though he’s constantly mocked by the players, he vows to deliver nothing but “high quality H2O” to the guys. One day, Bobby shows off some prodigious tackling skills, and the team’s coach, desperate for something to jumpstart his squad’s fortunes, puts him on the roster. Soon, our liquid loving loser is the talk of the NCAA. He even recaptures the eye of resident bad girl Vicki Vallencourt. Still, Bobby’s momma doesn’t believe in organized sports and she’s ready to put the kibosh on his career - right before the big championship game against an arch rival, naturally.
The Waterboy is about as mainstream as Adam Sandler gets. If you discount his recent forays into family film (Bedtime Stories) and semi-serious drama (Reign Over Me), the king of goofball juvenilia is actually working rather crackpot free here. Sure, Bobby Boucher is all vocal mannerism and silent comedy composure, but the truth is that, for once, Sandler is letting the story and the situation drive the funny business. This is a standard sports movie, the last act game giving rise to all the character’s hopes, dreams, and dimensions. Without the national title on the line, Bobby’s rise in the football ranks wouldn’t matter, his coach’s vendetta with the opposing team wouldn’t count, and Mama Boucher’s ridiculous superstitions would be invalid as a plot point. But with the filmic formula in place, everything about The Waterboy takes on a far more meaningful bent.
Of course, all comedies are judged on laughs, and this movie has some good ones. Sandler really does milk Bobby’s bumbling persona, to the point where we actually think we are witnessing a real performance instead of some superstar stunt party trick. As with most of his slightly surreal creations however, our hero lapses once in a while. Good thing costars like Oscar winner Kathy Bates, ex-Fonz Henry Winkler, and the blazing Fairuza Balk are along for the ride. They remedy some of the situations where Sandler seems lost and directionless. They never drop their given guard, taking their broadly drawn caricatures to their own silly cinematic ends. As usual, they are accented by Sandler’s standard array of comic compatriot oddballs, everyone from the omnipresent Rob Schneider to Clint Howard, Blake Clark, and Allen Covert.
But the real unsung hero here is director Frank Coraci. Having worked with Sandler before on the equally efficient Wedding Singer, this is one comedy filmmaker who realizes that a real work of wit is more than just a string of clever skits stitched together with exposition. Borrowing heavily from the Rudy/Hoosiers archetype, Coraci actually gets us to care about the outcome of the game, whether Bobby will end up playing, and if his romance with Vicki Vallencourt will ever be anything more than mere “friends”. Sure, he frequently undermines his sequences with editorial and structural miscues, and he manages to wick away much of the cleverness about three-quarters of the way through, but as an example of the successful merging of athleticism and anarchy, The Waterboy works.
What doesn’t however, is the way this movie has been treated on Blu-ray. Oh sure, it looks fine. It’s not going to win any high definition awards, but it does provide a more polished, theater like transfer of the title. Similarly, the sound elements make for a more full bodied and sonically substantial experience. But where are the bonus features? Blu-ray is not just about the tech specs - it’s about utilizing all that extra disc space to plump up the product with lots of interactive trivia and tidbits. Like the recent Watchmen release, the format can function as a how-to, an exercise in insight, even a chance to clear up some long held misconceptions. But The Waterboy gets something that few thought the new fangled conceit would cotton to - a basic, barebones release. It’s a shame, really. The appreciation for the film has only grown with time. Certainly something could have been made to celebrate its staying power.
As with most Sandler movies, however, The Waterboy appears destined to be discounted as nothing more than a simple star vehicle for a once popular cultural icon, a funny man who’s since felt the need to spread his thespian wings. For some reason, amusing people are compelled to explore their darker side, and it’s not without its drawbacks. Those who liked you before hope you return to the ridiculous, while those who found your forays into drama mildly amusing slam you for going backwards. Had he continued to combine types, to take certain cinematic categories like the thriller and meld it into his particular style of satire, Sandler would still be on top. He wouldn’t have to dive between current filmmaking fads to earn his considerable keep. The Waterboy once argued for where this comedian’s career could flourish. It’s all been downhill and sideways since then.