ben franklin is the devil!

Adam Sandler has made a movie career out of playing the underdog (and underintelligent): first as the charming rich boy Billy Madison, then violent and raging Happy Gilmore, sweet-natured wedding singer Robbie Hart, and now as waterboy- turned-football star Bobby Boucher. You should know that “Billy Madison” is one of my favorite comedies, and that I like the other two movies very much. But it appears that, four years after the debut of this ever-evolving underdog character, Sandler needs to find a new shtick. “The Waterboy” is as stuck in unfunny sub-adolescent humor as Bobby’s ramshackle house is in the steamy Louisiana swampland. I really did try to like it, but Sandler was hell-bent on preventing me from even tolerating his latest aberration of a characterization.

Bobby is a stuttering, lily-livered, tractor-riding, brillo-headed Forrest Gump of a 31- year-old innocent with none of that other fictional gridiron star’s appeal. Bobby is obsessed with providing the University of Louisiana footballers with rejuvenating water, even offering choices of rain, spring or distilled. In his eighteenth year as a “water distribution engineer” (Bobby is prone to fits of strangely refined vocabulary – the other 99% of the time, he babbles about his mama), constantly the victim of the players’ ire and the coach’s hatred, he is finally fired by Coach Beaulieu. Despondent, against his overprotective swamp mama’s (a garishly comic Kathy Bates) wishes, he offers his waterboy services to down-on-his-luck Coach Klein (former Fonz Henry Winkler) – and he offers them for free after seeing the vat of putrescence Klein dispenses as refreshment to his team.

In the midst of a 40 game losing streak, the Mud Dogs are as cruel and unusual to Bobby as his old team. Coach Klein, though, takes a shine to the backwater boy and tells him to stand up for himself. Stand up he does, and in doing so Bobby becomes the star linebacker and NCAA sack record-holder in a matter of days. He imagines his targets as the people who were mean to him all his life: the nasty athletes, his old coach, even his mama who claims everything is “the devil.” Dehydration, once his greatest enemy, takes a backseat to his vengeful tackle-fest and Bobby takes his team all the way to the Bourbon Bowl, where he is pitted against (surprise!) his mortal enemy, old Coach Beaulieu. In a not-so-bizarre twist of fate, Beaulieu is also an old adversary of Klein’s.

Meanwhile, Bobby must deal with his dear, sweet mama, who is vehemently opposed to her son playing “foosball,” as the game is apparently known in Cajun territory. Mama Boucher dispenses such pearls of wisdom as that happiness comes from rays of sunshine that appear when you are sad, or that “little girls are the devil.” That, of course, puts a kink in Bobby’s budding romance with recently paroled astrologer and mechanical whiz Vicki Vallencourt – but not too much of a kink, seeing as Bobby has never even kissed a girl. He spends his free time watching wrestling with a special place in his heart for the great Captain Insano, who like everyone else, after talking to him during a WWF call-in session, thinks Bobby is a big bayou zero.

“The Waterboy” operates under the same basic premise of all of Sandler’s previous films. While his other films were entertaining variations on a theme, this one plays more like a defective derivative. The good-for-nothing Sandler character finds his hidden talent, a goal to reach, and manages to overcome all of the evil villains that try to stop him along the way. He has a love interest far too sophisticated and mature for his sophomoric mentality and libido.

Heartwarmingly complicated, isn’t it? Except that “The Waterboy” is neither heartwarming nor as funny as it tries to be. Its humor is tepid and lines that want to be side-splitting are only mildly amusing. It tries to expand its scope by showing the dumber-than-thou Bobby getting some of that book-learnin’ in college (student-athlete, you know) and having him claim at the end that he’s going to go back to school after his football victory. This ploy fails to engage the audience in caring about anything that happens to Bobby-on-the-bayou and only serves to skew the film's narrative thrust.

It’s a shame to see the talented Sandler sink to such a level of contemptible “creativity.” He is capable of so much more than this tripe and has been in an upward trajectory with every movie he has made – until now, anyway. “The Waterboy” is a huge disappointment, especially after his more adult (and more sweetly unaffected, since Robbie and Bobby in the two movies seem to share a lot of the same romantic sensibilities) outing in “The Wedding Singer.”

Sometimes the adage “Why change what works?” doesn’t work at all.

Sat Nov 7 19:40:46 EST 1998
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