There’s a big old elephant in this room, and there’s no sense in moving forward until it’s addressed: In 1998’s The Waterboy, Adam Sandler plays Bobby Boucher, an intellectually disabled man-child with a Cajun accent and an unreasonable fixation on the proper maintenance, conditioning, and delivery of water. There is no denying, changing, or circumventing that fact. The film is full of jokes made at Bobby’s expense and at that of several other characters embodying embarrassing and outmoded cultural stereotypes ranging from crass and immature to homophobic and racist. The Waterboy could not be made today, nor should it be. It’s an Adam Sandler vehicle, after all, and (with the exception of The Wedding Singer and Punch-Drunk Love) most seem to prefer that we leave this stretch of his career in our collective rear view. With all that said — and with allowances made for the nearly twenty years that have passed since its release — there is a worthwhile argument to be made that The Waterboy is actually a well-constructed comedy that understands exactly how to bend its potentially offensive premise into something warm, offbeat, and deserving of more than its lukewarm reputation.
But we’re not laughing at Bobby’s weakness or his misfortune. In fact, the most admirable thing about The Waterboy — the factor that elevates it above other comedies of its kind — is that he’s almost never the low-status character. Even in situations where he’s derided and abused, those abusing him are always portrayed as ignorant, barbaric, and unenlightened. Bobby has standards and goals. He has passion, benign and useless as it may seem to the rest of us. He takes pride in his abilities and demonstrates expertise in situations where others fall short. He carries bottles of specially-treated water and teaches fellow players (including The Wire’s Larry Gillard, Jr.) about proper methods for preparation and delivery. It’s dumb — so dumb — but it’s how the movie lets us know that we’re on his side, that he’s more than just a punching bag. While he lacks intelligence, he demonstrates a ton of wisdom, and that gives us insight into his point of view. He’s sympathetic to Coach Klein and his losing team. He’s got his eye on the insane and sexy recidivist Vicki Vallencourt (Fairuza Balk), who encourages him to man up and overcome his insecurities. He makes personal sacrifices to appease his Mama. Because Bobby accepts people for who they are and refuses to treat anyone with disrespect, we’re laughing with him instead of at him.