The common wisdom on the school of Jerry Lewis-manque idiot comics is that they serve as whipping boys for the self-esteem-starved audiences of the X, Y or Z generations--that their film personae can make anyone feel good about themselves because they’re so purposefully pathetic. But that’s too glib.
More likely, the appeal of Pauly Shore, the late Chris Farley, Jim Carrey (on most occasions) and their discipline’s sine qua non, Adam Sandler, is rooted in the perverse appreciation of truly bad movie making. Audiences weaned on much of the Hollywood product of the last 20 years, with its presumptive posturing, ludicrous plots, cardboard acting and shamelessly manipulated Big Emotion, have become connoisseurs of trash defined not necessarily as something useless but as something discarded. Filmgoers themselves feel discarded by the industry.
Sandler is the most successful practitioner of this art--this lost-audience stroking--precisely because his performances are the least performed, his characters the least realized. He has removed all artifice from acting; in fact, he can barely keep a straight face himself when he adopts the simpleton’s voice of most of his characters. Subsequently, there’s an intimacy with his audience that bonds them in contempt--not for each other, but for a system that doesn’t just produce this kind of thing, it thrives on it.
Sandler’s Bobby Boucher is a 31-year-old victim of the locker-room mentality, a testosterone-fueled pecking order of which he occupies the lowest peck. A devoted employee and advanced hydrologist--his water menu includes “distilled,” “spring” and “rain"--he is dismissed abruptly by the sadistic coach Red Beaulieu (Jerry Reed) and his world starts to crumble.
Smothered by his mama (Kathy Bates, who’s clearly having fun) and enticed by the felonious Vicki Vellencourt (Fairuza Balk), Bobby will be taken on by Coach Klein (Henry Winkler), an old rival of Red’s and one who believes--Freudian that he is--that Bobby needs to vent. When he does, all his pent-up hostility makes him the most ferocious linebacker in the South.
Sandler engages in the comedy of cruelty; Mama’s kitchen-- where she serves up such bayou delicacies as fried anaconda, fried baby alligator and frog-filled muffins--is a Stephen King-inspired nightmare, as is Bates’ performance.
“The Waterboy” follows a leadenly predictable path that will be more than familiar to anyone who’s seen a recent sports movie, or any Sandler movie: Miserable underdog rises to the top, falls, is redeemed, shows up late for the big game for no reason other than to make a dramatic entrance, has a minor setback, rises again and scores--in agonizing slow-motion--the winning touchdown / home run / 25-foot putt.
There are, no doubt, nuances to be discerned in just how a director manipulates these various bits of cheese to build his own personal vision, but like higher math and the deconstruction of Brahms, the subtleties are the purview of an advanced guard of true believers. Fortunately for Sandler, he has plenty.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for language and some crude sexual humor. Times guidelines: inconsequential innuendo, a lot of mean behavior.
Adam Sandler: Bobby Boucher
Kathy Bates: Mama Boucher
Fairuza Balk: Vicki Vellencourt
Jerry Reed: Coach Beaulieu
Henry Winkler: Coach Klein
Touchstone Pictures presents a Robert Simonds/Jack Giarraputo production, a Frank Coraci movie, distributed by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. Directed by Frank Coraci. Written by Tim Herlihy and Adam Sandler. Produced by Robert Simonds, Jack Giarraputo. Executive producer Adam Sandler. Co-producer Ira Shuman. Director of photography Steven Bernstein. Production designer Perry Andelin Blake. Edited by Tom Lewis. Costume designer Tom Bronson. Music by Alan Pasqua. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
In general release.