A look back at The Wedding Singer, the sweet & quirky comedy that showed a different, far less obnoxious side of Adam Sandler.
Though I had in my younger days a pretty low bar as to what funny meant, Adam Sandler was quickly filed under “not for me.” I could take him in bite-sized portions on Saturday Night Live, but his brand of aggressive man-child comedy was far harder to take in feature-length films, particularly when quoted or imitated ad infinitum by men who weren’t professional comedians. To say that I greeted the announcement that he was cast as the leading man in the romantic comedy The Wedding Singer with skepticism would have been an understatement; I fully expected that it would be a “romantic comedy” made strictly for the guys, where the leading man would have to change in no appreciable way to get his co-star to fall madly in love with him.
Sandler’s decision to rein in his (admittedly successful) shtick and try something new for The Wedding Singer was surprising enough, let alone that it ended up being one of the best romantic comedies of the 90s. While it hits all the typical beats of the genre, its quirky humor sets it apart, as does co-star Drew Barrymore, at the start of her post-Scream comeback and never more adorable.
The Wedding Singer, written by Sandler’s frequent collaborator Tim Herlihy, landed at just the right time, when America was moving past its nostalgia for the 70s and ready to reembrace the 80s (or at least, the fun, neon-colored parts of it). If it doesn’t capture the time period exactly as it was, it certainly manages the flavor of it, right down to a character blasting the theme to Miami Vice from his car in one scene. The Michael Jackson jackets and Flock of Seagulls haircuts are merely comical set dressing for timeless themes of finding The One at the worst possible time, and a plucky young heroine being forced to choose between a rich cad and a humble nice guy (though here it’s not much of a “choice”).
Sandler is Robbie Hart, a New Jersey musician who once had aspirations of being a rock star but is now content working as a singer at a suburban reception hall. Robbie is devastated after his fiancée, Linda (Angela Featherstone), frustrated at what she perceives as his lack of ambition, leaves him at the altar. Depressed, and embarrassed after a disastrous performance at a wedding, he decides to quit performing, but is encouraged to return by Julia (Drew Barrymore), a waitress at the reception hall. The two become friends, and Robbie agrees to help Julia plan her wedding to the loathsome Glenn (Matthew Glave), despite the fact that it’s obvious to everyone around them that they were really made for each other.
I don’t have to tell you how The Wedding Singer ends. You already know, even if you’ve never seen it. “Man and woman take ninety minutes to figure out that they’re madly in love, to absolutely no one’s surprise” is Romantic Comedy 101 plotting, and Herlihy’s script does little to turn that aspect of it on its head. Glenn might be the all-time grand champion of asshole boyfriends, and you can’t even call what develops between him, Julia, and Robbie a love triangle, because it’s never believable for one minute that Julia could love Glenn. Even if Julia’s cousin and friend Holly (Christine Taylor) didn’t explain to Robbie that Julia is marrying Glenn for financial security (something Robbie most decidedly does not have), at no point does the audience ever believe that Julia might be confused about her feelings. Anime heart eyes all but light up on her face from the very first conversation she and Robbie have together.
What saves it from its own cliches is the real, palpable chemistry between Sandler and Barrymore. While he does occasionally revert to the “quiet voice, quiet voice, quiet voice, SCREAM” persona of his earlier films, it turns out that a restrained Sandler is a likable Sandler. Robbie may lack ambition (though some may say that just wanting a steady job and a family is a noble pursuit), but he’s a gentle soul, the kind of person who enjoys spending time both with his young nephews, and an elderly woman (Ellen Albertini Dow) taking singing lessons in preparation for her 50th wedding anniversary. It’s easy to see why Julia would prefer him over the brash Glenn, who throws money around and brags to Robbie that his job in the city will allow him to easily cheat on Julia after they’re married, just as he’s been doing the whole time.
And of course, what kind of monster wouldn’t find Drew Barrymore charming? She’s pure sunshine here, playing a character the audience is rooting for the instant she appears on screen. Perhaps the most touching scene is when she’s by herself trying on her wedding gown, and coming to the realization that she’s making a huge mistake in marrying Glenn (and not just because his last name is Gulia, meaning she’s about to become Julia Gulia). After a tearful moment, she soothes herself by pretending that she’s marrying Robbie instead. She practically glows at the mention of his name, and as predictable as it is that these two crazy kids are going to end up together in the end, it still brings on a wicked case of the warm fuzzies.
Offbeat comedy nicely balances out the mush. Steve Buscemi and Jon Lovitz appear in small but memorable roles as a wedding guest and rival singer, respectively, along with Alexis Arquette as Robbie’s Boy George lookalike bandmate who longs to be a solo performer, but only knows half of one song, the intro to Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.” Though it goes a little heavy on “the 80s, am I right?” gags, as if the mere idea of the 80s is hilarious in and of itself, that does culminate in a delightful cameo appearance from Billy Idol, who helps Robbie finally declare his love for Julia.
Mostly, in a film genre that often comes off as smug and cynical, The Wedding Singer is remarkably good-natured. Robbie and Julia don’t end up together because the script demands it, but because they were truly meant to be, and the fact that the viewer truly believes that is a kind of rare magic. It’s a cold world out there, and we could all use a little mush in our lives.