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The Anti-Capitalist Brilliance of Early Adam Sandler

Why are juvenile ’90s flicks like ‘Billy Madison’ still so funny? Here’s a theory: Because they challenge the grim authority and corruption of American empire

Ryan and I were 10 years old, and we could barely catch our breath from laughing so hard. We were at a sleepover in the mid-’90s — watching, of course, the Adam Sandler movie Billy Madison on VHS. When it was over, we rewound the Blockbuster tape and watched it again. I’d guess thousands of people my age have similarly distinct memories: My ex has a story about taking a transatlantic flight as a kid and screening the Sandler movie Happy Gilmore seven(!) times in a row. If you were a kid in that era, Sandler was the funniest person on the planet. Grown-ups hated this manic man-child, but we couldn’t possibly have cared.

But even now, as an adult, I find the early Sandlerverse funny. I crack myself up recalling one gag or another. Is it simple nostalgia for the silliness of youth? Allow me to present a different, completely insane but ultimately plausible theory — a theory that may help to explain why these comedies were reviled by parents and panned by the Roger Eberts of the world: Sandler was mocking the cult of Western capitalism.

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Oh, sure, baby boomers like to pretend it was Sandler’s deliberately grating on-screen persona that turned them away, but I’m just not buying it anymore. What they really couldn’t tolerate was the spectacle of an anarcho-revolutionary upending their convenient fictions about “society.”

Let’s start with Billy Madison. He’s the drunk layabout idiot son of a hotel magnate who runs a Fortune 500 company, yet somehow, it’s not until he ruins a single formal dinner that his dad decides he might not be fit to inherit control of the business. I ask you: Was any film of 1995 this savage or prescient on the subject of monied white male privilege? No! The moviegoing public was too busy jizzing themselves over Mel Gibson hacking up dudes in Braveheart to note this commentary.

Billy Madison offers further timely critique of the capitalist order in its key plot point: Billy only made it to high school graduation because his dad bribed his teachers. The rich aren’t on the same playing field as the rest of us, and Billy seeks to correct this by putting in the work to educate himself for real. And the villain of the piece — the scheming executive Eric Gordon, who wants control of the Madison brand — is finally undone by his total failure to produce one cogent thought on the topic of business ethics, which prompts him to threaten a crowd of innocents with a gun. America much?

In the finale, Billy forgoes control of the company and chooses to continue his self-betterment at college, with the aim of becoming a teacher himself — contributing to the social good rather than maximizing profit for shareholders.

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Likewise, Happy Gilmore charts the growth of a populist hero against a backdrop of obscene wealth and elitism: the country club. Initially devoted to the boorish, “low-class” violence of hockey, Happy Gilmore discovers a natural talent for driving a golf ball 400 yards with his ace slapshot. He’s forced to monetize this skill in order to buy back his beloved grandmother’s house, cruelly repossessed by the ravenous IRS, to which she owes thousands in back taxes.

Happy, having secured a spot on tour, is a rude shock to the buttoned-down WASPs that make up the professional golf scene, dismantling their exclusionary code of etiquette 18 holes at a time. In an act of radical solidarity with the impoverished, he hires a homeless man as his caddy; when his antics threaten to get him kicked off the circuit, the PGA’s head of public relations (and his love interest) argues that he’s improved TV ratings and drawn youth-oriented sponsors — allowing him to continue subverting golf’s restrictive image through the very machinery of capital.

In due course, he democratizes the sport completely, paving the way for fans and golfers of all classes, regardless of background. No surprise that the bad guy this time around, the snobbish and vindictive Shooter McGavin (who at one point weaponizes his wealth to outbid Happy for his grandmother’s house at auction) winds up chased offscreen by an angry mob for stealing a championship jacket he hasn’t won — a perfect “eat the rich” moment.

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Oh, and did I mention the B-plot where Happy’s poor grandmother is trapped in a retirement home that forces residents to labor at quilting under sweatshop conditions?

Once you start seeing these themes, you can spot them anywhere.

The slacker protagonist of Big Daddy, rather than submitting to the tyranny of work in a dehumanizing market, mainly lives off compensation from an accident. Mr. Deeds witnesses Sandler as another reluctant heir to a multibillion-dollar company: Initially, he wants to sell his stake and donate all the proceeds to the United Negro College Fund. Later on, he supports the rightful heir in an effort to keep shareholders from selling the business and leaving thousands jobless. He rebukes them for their greed; what money he comes away with he uses to buy red Corvettes for everyone in his hometown, as if to put a communist spin on conspicuous consumption. Sandler is a member of the hard-rock band of 1994’s Airheads that rejects the option to sell out with a major label, and the climax of The Wedding Singer has him infiltrate the first-class cabin of a plane to win over both rich folks and a flight crew with his everyman’s struggle against an affluent romantic rival. Even a dud like Click starts from the premise of a guy who neglects his family in favor of his career. But best of all may be Sandler’s character’s scheme, in Punch-Drunk Love, to exploit a promotional loophole and collect a million frequent-flyer points by purchasing vast amounts of Healthy Choice pudding.

He also bravely refuses to be extorted by the threatening operator of a phone-sex line:

Could all this be a beautiful coincidence? Perhaps. In real life, Sandler is sadly a registered Republican — he actually donated to the presidential campaign of Rudy Giuliani (who also had a cameo in his movie Anger Management). He has supported a good number of less-than-ideological charities and select progressive causes, including same-sex marriage. A representative from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation said of the controversial I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry that despite the hacky stereotypes, it was, “in its own disarming way… a call for equality and respect.” None of that, naturally, adds up to a crusading socialist. Sandler owns houses in both Malibu and Bel Air, after all. Yet across his work, he has a knack for challenging, if in a juvenile way, the grim authority and corruption of American empire.

As Roger Ebert himself once wrote of Sandler’s style, which he appreciated only in Punch-Drunk Love and, rather bizarrely, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan: The characters “are almost oppressively nice, like needy puppies, and yet they conceal a masked hostility to society, a passive-aggressive need to go against the flow, a gift for offending others while in the very process of being ingratiating.” He may as well have been describing the generations who grew up on Sandler’s crass comedy — those who long sought approval from an economic system they now wish to take apart from within.