The Waterboy

Now that Jim Carrey is testing deeper waters, Hollywood’s mantle of the Golden Idiot has been passed to Adam Sandler, who has quietly and modestly built one of the major careers of recent years. It’s easy to see why: Sandler plays regular guys — not stupid, but maybe a little slow; ambitious, but not heartless — who go up against the big guys and win on their own terms. Not terribly original, but nothing much wrong with it, either. Sandler is also genuinely funny; he sits down with some buddies to work on his scripts, and leaves in all the goofy, silly stuff (“What if we did this? …. Nah, man, we can’t do that”) most writers would leave out.

The result has been some uneven but often wildly funny comedies. Happy Gilmore, from 1996, and The Wedding Singer, from earlier this year, both pack considerable charm and more than a few classic bits (like the Bob Barker scene in Happy Gilmore). Sandler’s new one, The Waterboy, reunites the Wedding Singer team of Sandler buddies (director Frank Coraci, co-writer Tim Herlihy) and has already been described as a fusion of the rude-boy sports-fan Sandler of Happy Gilmore and the kinder, gentler Sandler of The Wedding Singer. Possibly, but his character this time, Bobby Boucher, is funnier than Happy or Robbie Hart.

The minute Sandler opens his mouth in The Waterboy, you’re either irritated (as Roger Ebert was) or completely with him. Sandler speaks in a soft, zonked-out stutter with a dash of Louisiana accent. It’s not the stutter so much as the doofus voice that struck me funny, spruced up by the unexpected appearance of words like “profusely” or “discourteous.” Sandler’s Bobby Boucher is a mild-mannered man-child, 31 years old and still under the thumb of his beloved mama (Kathy Bates). Booted from the college football team where he serves as a “water distribution engineer,” Bobby finds work providing water to an underdog team coached by Henry Winkler, who sees a hidden talent in Bobby. Sufficiently riled up, Bobby can deliver bone-crushing tackles.

The Waterboy and Happy Gilmore will make good companion videos. Happy stormed up to the tee and whacked the ball as if going for a slap shot; Bobby goes into football with a similarly bullheaded, aggressive approach. These movies are about how a sad sack turns a flaw into a personal style, and that’s why the repeated scenes of Happy or Bobby doing their thing don’t become tiresome: We see how these sports rebels keep doing the same thing over and over until the fans start getting into it and loving it. We begin to see their shtick as a rude kind of integrity.

Fairuza Balk is around, too, as a hell-raiser with a bad rep; she’s drawn to Bobby for the same reason all women are attracted to Sandler in his movies — he loses his aggressiveness around women, and turns rather shy and sweet. Sandler and the usually rough-edged Balk have a gentle rapport. Everything leads to the big game, though the momentum is derailed by a long hospital sequence and a revelation that invalidates Bobby’s fixation on water. I could’ve lived without the last scene, and the cameo of one of Sandler’s fellow Saturday Night Live alumni wears out its welcome after the fifth or sixth insert of him. Still, like most Sandler films, The Waterboy is scrappy and funny and achieves its modest aim, which is to make us laugh like grade-schoolers. The doofus boy triumphs again.

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