WATERBOY, THE – Blu-ray review

I don’t know where they’re headquartered, but there’s an I Hate Adam Sandler Club, and a fair number of critics belong to it. Maybe the membership roster wouldn’t be so large if Sandler and co-writer Tim Herlihy had quit while they were ahead. After feeling their way in “Billy Madison” (1995), they scored an offbeat hit with the lowbrow “Happy Gilmore” (1996), and then Herlihy soloed on the script for “The Wedding Singer,” a 1998 popular film that showcased a warmer and less slapstick Sandler.

I’m not a fan of Sandler’s, but I do think he has talent, and I appreciate some of his films–like the two I mentioned, as well as “50 First Dates” (2004), “Spanglish” (2004), and “Bedtime Stories” (2008). I think we see his best work when the character he plays is an original–like hockey-player-turned-golfer Gilmore, or Robbie, the wedding singer who’s both a parody of wedding singers and his own character. The minute Sandler tries to play a straight type, forget it. His clichéd performance just heaps more triteness on top of the caricature, and the result is better suited for a “Saturday Night Live” skit than a full-length feature film.

That’s what happens in “The Waterboy” (1998), which I like to believe is a parody of “Forrest Gump” (1994). If not, then Sandler’s portrayal of a mentally challenged mama’s boy from the bayous of Louisiana is truly offensive. When Tom Hanks talked, we believed that his character Forrest was a little slow, but still intelligent enough to know he’s a little slow and make the most of the brain cells he does have. Hanks did considerable research before attempting his role. Sandler, meanwhile, sounds like someone who’s imitating a mentally challenged person in a high school cafeteria. He shapes his mouth like Dick Van Dyke imitating Stanley Laurel and speaks in a half-lisp and half-nasal whine that’s frankly annoying–which is why I prefer to think he and Herlihy were attempting a parody of “Forrest Gump,” southern-fried accent and all.

Just as Forrest had an overprotective mother who’d do anything to insulate her “different” son, Bobby Boucher (Sandler) is a 31 year old who lives with a mother (Kathy Bates) that tries to protect him by telling him that everything is evil and everyone–including girls and Ben Franklin–are the devil. Forrest ran, and his speed earned him a spot on Bear Bryant’s Alabama football team, but Bobby drives a lawn mower tractor from his bayou home to his job as waterboy for a southern college, where the coach could pass for a Bryant wannabe. Forrest ends up playing Alabama football because he runs faster than anyone, but sometimes gets confused about which direction he’s supposed to go. Bobby’s talent is fierce tackling, something that comes out when he reaches his breaking point.

In this film from Frank Coraci (“The Wedding Singer,” “Click”), football players are cruel to the waterboy, which is one of those laws of the high school and college jungles. Cool kids pick on drool kids. But in the spirit of “Dumb and Dumber,” as these players make fun of the “retard” they also spit in the water they’re supposed to drink. Smart, huh? I stopped trying to figure out the brand of humor when Bobby was fired from his waterboy job and presented himself to the coach (Henry Winkler) of the Mud Dogs, a team that hasn’t won since the Devonian period. The coach was reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coaching College Football. Yep, the humor is right there on the surface, and there are running gags galore-like the food-fare that Mama Boucher serves up (coiled snake, followed by grilled whole baby gators, or the unintelligible assistant coach (Blake Clark) who dresses like a farmer and talks in gibberish. It’s funny, but it would have been hilarious if we haven’t seen characters like this since Gabby Hayes’ “frontier gibberish” in the old Westerns. The one fly in the ointment is that Mama doesn’t want him to play “foosball,” and while she spends time at their bayou home (which looks like the set used to film the old Budweiser frogs commercial), Bobby is learning what it’s like to be a college student, and having run-ins with a certain professor (Robert Kokol) who looks like a dead-ringer for Col. Sanders.

I watched this with my wife and son, both of whom laughed in spots. So did I. But you have to wait for the funny moments, rather than savoring humorous elements of character and situation throughout. In the tradition of sports comedies, naturally this builds to where a bowl game pits linebacker-star Bobby and his coach against the coach who fired him from his waterboy job. And in the tradition of Adam Sandler comedies, the underdog draws the attention and affections of a girl–in this case, a delinquent one named Vicki Vallencourt (Fairuza Balk) who functions as Bobby’s version of Jenny, the childhood connection and adult fascination that Forrest Gump had. As I said, I prefer to think of this as a “Forrest Gump” parody, because otherwise Sandler’s portrayal of a slow person is just too tough to take. My pre-teen son (okay, this was PG-13 and we let him get by) enjoyed it, and teens are probably the age that will get the most out of “The Waterboy”–that, and diehard Adam Sandler fans. That said, it’s also not as bad as the I Hate Adam Sandler clubbers have said. It’s a predictable, formulaic, dumb comedy that has about as much depth as Bobby . . . unless you think of it in Forrest Gump terms, and then it begins to get a little less offensive and a little funnier. Or maybe I’m giving it too much credit.

The original film elements must have been in pretty good shape, because the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc is crisp and clean. Colors are bright and pleasantly saturated, skin-tones are accurate, and there’s a nice level of detail to be seen in close-ups especially. Long shots reveal the most film grain, but never so much that you’d notice unless you were looking to write a review of the film. “The Waterboy” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and I saw no evidence of edge enhancement or artifacts.

The audio is pretty solid, with clear dialogue and no distortion. But it’s not the kind of soundtrack that lends itself to sonic dynamism, with the exception of the crowd scenes. Most of it is talk and tackling grunts, but dang, are those clear. The featured audio is an English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, with additional options in French Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0. Subtitles are in English SDH, Spanish, and French. Don’t look for a lot of rumble in the bass or for the sound to completely fill the room. It hovers pretty close to the source. But the precision of the soundtrack and the clarity make for easy listening.

There are no bonus features. Not even an interview with Tom Hanks in which he says, “Very funny. Ha ha.”

Bottom Line:
“The Waterboy” isn’t one of Adam Sandler’s best comedies, nor is it one of his worst. So if you’re in the mood for a middle-of-the-road low-brow Sandler flick, this one looks pretty good in Blu-ray.