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by: Scott Renshaw

So much for Adam Sandler, "normal" guy. In The Wedding Singer, it looked as though Sandler were trying to shrug off the infantile, silly-voiced persona he took from "Saturday Night Live" to Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. While still fairly silly in its way, The Wedding Singer was a somewhat more mature, somewhat more clever vehicle for Sandler, his first attempt at actual screen acting. In The Waterboy, Sandler is once again playing an infantile, silly-voiced character, the kind of character that strikes unholy terror in a critic's heart.

While it would be a gross exaggeration to call The Waterboy a smart film, it's funny in ways I didn't quite expect. Sandler plays Bobby Boucher, a bayou-bred 31-year-old simpleton who still lives with his domineering Mama (Kathy Bates) and has been serving as the University of Louisiana's waterboy for 18 years. When U. of L.'s nasty Coach Beaulieu (Jerry Reed) finally fires Bobby, the hydrophilic lad hooks up with the hapless South Central Louisiana State University Mud Dogs, a Division I doormat led by jittery Coach Klein (Henry Winkler). It's Coach Klein who unwittingly releases Bobby's inner linebacker when he encourages Bobby to defend himself against the taunting of team players and discovers a pure tackling machine. Thus begins the Mud Dogs' most successful season ever, as Bobby "The Waterboy" Boucher becomes a national sensation, leading the team to an inevitable confrontation with the University of Louisiana -- provided Bobby can keep over-protective Mama from finding out her baby boy is playing "the foosball."

The opening minutes of The Waterboy don't hold out much hope for anything beyond 12-year-old comedy sensibilities. Sight gags predominate, from footballs hitting Sandler in the head, to pratfalls over the water cooler, to Sandler motoring about on a riding lawn mower. Yawn-inspiring running gags involve a perpetually drunken cheerleading squad, a pair of dim-witted die-hard fans (Clint Howard and Allen Covert), and an assistant coach (Blake Clark) who speaks in an incomprehensible accent. A few giggles leak out of the predictable dopiness, while Sandler's stuttering, soft-spoken variation on Cajun Man threatens to wear out his welcome very early on.

Yet something strange happens sometime after the fourth or fifth reference to Bobby's backwater, snake-and-squirrel-eating background. The dialogue starts getting sharper, including Bobby's bizarre cover story to his Mama for his football-related bruises. Sandler starts getting more endearingly innocent rather than acting like a moron. And the sight gags start getting funnier, perhaps as much related to a build-up of good will as to any change in approach. The incongruous presence of Bates and Winkler certainly helps (the latter sporting decidedly un-Fonzie-esque love handles), but something about the writing in The Waterboy just kept sneaking up on me, delivering a left-field laugh at times when I was expecting obvious bits of slapstick idiocy.

Many people probably associate Sandler with moron comedy in the Ernest/Pauly Shore/Carrot Top vein, perhaps without having seen any of his films. He and frequent writing partner Tim Herlihy are considerably more sly than that. They've learned a few lessons in more upscale comedy from The Wedding Singer, and bring that sensibility to the lower common denominator audience targeted with The Waterboy. They certainly miss the target plenty of times - Rob Schneider's extended cameo gets more insufferable every time he appears - but they also don't fire at the same target over and over again. Between the lethargic opening and the who-cares romance with bad girl Fairuza Balk, The Waterboy is a goofy entertainment. It appears Sandler doesn't have to be "normal" to be funny.


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