By Chris Nashawaty
March 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
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  • Movie

I feel enough like an idiot in my day-to-day life that I don’t need the added guilt of liking movies that critics hate. So now, to hold those dark hounds of self-loathing at bay, every time I laugh my ass off at some wonderfully moronic, lowbrow comedy, I think of that old Luther Ingram R&B lyric: ”If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right.”

While that mantra may be my own sad crutch, judging from how well some panned flicks do at the box office, I’m obviously not alone. Take The Waterboy: Adam Sandler may send reviewers into twitching hissy fits, but the movie’s $159 million-plus gross proves that some things are just plain critic-proof. Of course, Sandler isn’t the first comedian to override a chorus of downward-pointing thumbs — he’s just the latest in a line that traces way back to before Roger Ebert was in short pants. For our purposes, though, let’s go back 20 years to kick off the Era of the Teflon Dimwit. Not coincidentally, that year — 1979 — marked Bill Murray’s film debut, Meatballs.

Sure, now he’s a respected thespian, but two decades ago Murray — like fellow Saturday Night Live alum Sandler — was just another goof-off getting panned. Director Ivan Reitman, who produced National Lampoon’s Animal House, recycles the same snobs-vs.-slobs formula that made John Belushi’s Bluto a campus cult figure by pitting Murray’s screwup counselor Tripper against the rich kids at Camp Mohawk across the lake. The summer-camp romp features the same hormonal pranks, like nerds spying on the girls’ cabin. Today, Meatballs is harmless, almost quaint, but at the time, it was racy enough to tap randy teens for $45 million.

Jim Carrey may seem closer to Jerry Lewis than Murray, but both used a TV variety show to springboard to big-screen stardom. Also like Murray, Carrey initially got spanked by reviewers. Not only did 1994’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (Warner, PG-13, $9.94 on tape, $24.98 on DVD) not screen for critics before opening, EW gave it an F. Sporting an arsenal of floral shirts so loud even Don Ho would wince, Carrey’s speed-freak pet dick is a twister of hostile tics. He’s also a freakin’ hoot. The plot’s pretty much a bunch of hooey (Ace is hired to find the Miami Dolphins’ missing mascot), but Carrey’s explosive shtick is inspired. I’ll admit that a grown man talking out of his butt shouldn’t be funny, but it is and that’s that. And I’ve got $72.2 million worth of fans to back me up.

The appeal of the late Chris Farley can be summed up by a quote from that southern-fried sage, Foghorn Leghorn: Looking at his pesky nemesis, Foghorn says, ”That boy’s about as sharp as a sack full of wet mice.” And when Farley teamed with David Spade — the smug, weenie Laurel to his Hardy — mindless magic ensued. In Tommy Boy, Farley shows that despite his mastodonic, Baby Huey girth, he was as graceful as Belushi. After his auto-parts mogul father dies, Farley hits the highway with smart-aleck salesman Spade to save the company. The result is like a Hope-Crosby movie fuel-injected with low-IQ gags like Farley mincing around in Spade’s undersized jacket and crooning like Ethel Merman.

Though there may be no pleasure so pound-for-pound guilt-inducing as Tommy Boy, The Waterboy comes close. Like Farley, Carrey, and Murray, male fans allowed Sandler to thumb his nose back at the critics. Not that women can’t turn panned flicks into hand-over-fist hits (look at City of Angels). But the essence of Sandler’s doofus appeal is that he tickles the inner geek in all men who haven’t outgrown comic books and the Three Stooges. Sandler’s half-witted Cajun mama’s boy, Bobby Boucher, snaps a gasket after being taunted by the football players he hydrates. But when the moron opens his ”can of whup-ass,” they realize that within this inbred hick is an all-pro linebacker. Part of the fun of watching Sandler is cracking up when you know you shouldn’t, but you just can’t help yourself. The critics were dead-on when they said The Waterboy is mindless and idiotic — but if laughing is wrong, then what’s the point of being right?
The Waterboy: B
Meatballs: C
Ace Ventura: B-
Tommy Boy: B+

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