Revisiting "The Waterboy," Adam Sandler's Least Bad Football Movie
"The Waterboy," Adam Sandler's 1998 college football cinematic rage-comic, is ultra-lazy, super-dumb, cheaply sentimental, and still somehow not that bad.
We are, all of us, in the becalmed eye of Hurricane End Of Adam Sandler's Superstardom, riding out the lull between Pixels and The Ridiculous Six and trying to figure out what in the hell happened between "The Hanukkah Song" and Josh Gad having sex with Q*Bert, in IMAX. There is a real if patronizing sense that Sandler's fans matured before he did, which would be a rare victory for the much shat-upon millennial generation, if also a win by default. Sandler's early run holds up, especially in the light of The Cobbler, Fully Loaded and Grown Ups 33 1/3, but Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, and even The Wedding Singer are less comedic masterworks than cinematic comfort food. As early as 1998, I was simultaneously rooting for and losing respect for Adam Sandler. In retrospect, that was his prime.
The Waterboy was one of the first movies that disappointed me; even when I first watched it, as a middle school kid, I knew somehow that it wasn't trying hard enough. I was 14, and while I loved the Seinfeld finale, was stoked for The Phantom Menace, and still thought I was heterosexual, I also wasn't born yesterday. I didn't really want to rewatch The Waterboy this time around, but this is a movie review, not a Hall Of Fame induction ceremony. I will let my heroism speak for itself.
Adam Sandler is Bobby Boucher. You kinda understand where his irascible Old Ball Coach—Jerry Reed, forever well-cast—is coming from, because Boucher is an insufferable distraction. I wouldn't call him a "moron," as half the people in the movie do, but he is certainly sheltered by his well-meaning Mama (Kathy Bates). Bobby is fired from the University of Louisiana and then further emasculated by his manchildhood hero, the pro wrestler Captain Insano, who is played by Paul "The Big Show" Wight, who is WWE's answer to Mr. Sandler.
Eventually Boucher gets a glorified internship at THE South Central Louisiana State University (Go Mud Dogs!), and channels his rage into tackling his future teammates. Why Boucher never just tackled the players at UL and helped Jerry Reed bring another national title to their loyal fans is never explained; instead we get Henry Winkler and some time to fill, which isn't a bad deal. Winkler is great, as always, in the role of a more mousy Mouse Davis; Coach Fonzie's offense, which was fifteen years ahead of its time, was stolen by Reed some twenty years before in a genuinely goofy flashback. Only Bobby Boucher's unencumbered white male rage can remasculate the defeated Winkler, and help Bobby find his purpose.
The crux of Boucher's late-blooming athleticism is in his anger, which seems both accurate and unhealthy. I say this as someone who has mostly used rage to excel at bar trivia, and who has nearly been banned for life from my local watering hole at least two or three times because of it. Who am I, really, not to give The Waterboy credit for squeezing what it can out of this premise.
A huge issue with Adam Sandler's movies, especially as we (warily) approach the release of The Ridiculous Six, is that these movies imply that we can make fun of minorities, people with disabilities, the gays, etc. all we want, so long as it comes with the increasingly offhand message that They're People Too, and that Sandler is one of these outcasts, or at least empathizes with them. It's also interesting how Waterboy goes up the euphemism escalator by going down; "moron" here gets a lot more play than the word "retard," and while I know from experience the horror of the r-word, moron is, or at least originally was, even worse, and used by eugenicists to describe the lowest intellect. Sandler is at his best when dialing down his Cajun Boy/Canteen Boy schtick, which pretty much means whenever he's slaughtering half the defensive line.
Kathy Bates isn't slumming it as Mama, the domineering, repressive, but ultimately sympathetic matriarch of Maison Boucher. Or more accurately, she is slumming it much less than Al Pacino did with Jack And Jill. Frank Coraci, who directed The Waterboy and The Wedding Singer—and is also on the hook for Zookeeper, Blended, and, The Ridiculous Six—has a brief cameo as Bobby's estranged father at the very end.
Fairuza Balk is pretty good as the bad girl with a heart of gold, and Rob Schneider is used to greater effect here as the "YOUCAN DOIT" guy than in just about any film he's ever been in. When The Waterboy is your Punch-Drunk Love, that's something special. There is a screaming professor character that seems, somewhat poignantly, to have been written for Chris Farley; the actor who does play this character does what he can but is literally a body in a suit. These are highlights.
There are continuity errors in The Waterboy that go beyond the dorky You Might've Missed It trivia you'll find on an IMDB page, and which both speak to that broader laziness and were glaring enough to jump out to me even at 14. I was pleased, if that's the word, to see that I noticed once again that the climactic game is simultaneously the inaugural and the 50th anniversary Bourbon Bowl. I also forgot just how non-vital Captain Insano is to the plot, which were it any other pro wrestler except for The Big Show, would be a bad thing. The most incriminating laziness, however, lays in the music supervision. Andrew Gold's goopy hard-soft-rock anthem "Lonely Boy" is a song whose lyrics know it should be taken less seriously than its arrangement. The Waterboy almost ruined this classic for me by using the last few seconds of the entire song to unnecessarily underscore Boucher's alienation after a pep rally goes horribly, predictably wrong.
When the Boucher family fanboats their way to the stadium for what's either the first or 50th Bourbon Bowl, the pre-made signs for "The Waterboy" and umpteen ads on the sidelines for bottled water make the game feel like a nouveau riche reenactment of the end of Rudy, a film not even Vince Vaughn could bro down. Dan Fouts and Brent Musburger are decent as the announcers, and even get in a good running joke about not holding anything back; the lack of Musburger's ogling over the star player's girlfriend is as refreshing as the "Eskimo water" Fairuza Balk uses to revive Boucher after a nasty hit. While few comedians will openly own up to being influenced by Adam Sandler these days, he'll always have the support of Russell Wilson.
Commercially, The Waterboy was an unqualified success which
spawned over 15 years worth of very qualified successes. Happy Madison Productions came together less than a year after The Waterboy, and its name quickly became synonymous with high quality non-Sandler films like The Master Of Disguise and Bucky Larson: Born To Be A Star, as well as such classic Sandler timeshares as Just Go With It and Blended.
These years later, Sandler is at a point where it's tempting to give The Waterboy points for not being as bad as it would have been were it produced today, or even seven years later, when Adam Sandler made his spectacularly unnecessary remake of The Longest Yard. If Sandler were desperate enough to want another Orlando vacation he could very well do Waterboy 2: The Water Man, in which case we'd be watching Rex Ryan affect a Cajun drawl, and Carl's Jr. Commercial Hot Babe #4 as Bobby Boucher's ol' gal. The rival team would just be an army of Blart, gassed up on Winstrol and Papa John's. This is all hypothetical, but I am confident every word of it would be true.
The Waterboy is not a perfect comedy, or honestly even a very good one. But in its very loose 90 minutes it nearly justifies its place in the canon. Any movie where Jerry Reed's face turns into a baby's and Henry Winkler treats him as such deserves some credit, regardless of how much Adam Sandler and The Big Show the viewer has to endure in order to get to it. The Waterboy is not exactly what I'd call High Quality H20, but that's what Brita filters and the fast forward command are for.