Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Heath Holland On...The Old Fashioned Romance of The Wedding Singer

by Heath Holland
Billy Idol gets it.

I’ve appreciated The Wedding Singer since it first came out, but I seem to grow more attached to it with each passing year. The 1998 Adam Sandler vehicle is so much better than it had any right to be, and this fact is made painfully more obvious with every new Sandler project, each one seemingly worse than the one before it. In fact, if you look at the careers of the people involved with The Wedding Singer, you’ll notice that it’s really an anomaly in their filmography. Between Sandler, Director Frank Coraci and SNL-veteran writer Tim Herlihy, this trio is responsible for a string of movies that seem so lifeless and unfunny (most recently The Ridiculous 6) that they feel almost completely phoned in.
So what is it about The Wedding Singer that makes it different? I think part of it is the gimmick, which is that it takes place in an idealized 1980s; however, once you get past the blatant pop culture references and Adam Sandler’s poofy wig, it’s easy to relax and go where the story takes us. I think this is because the movie wears its heart on its sleeve and embodies a na├»ve sweetness that was rare even during the time it was released, but which seems downright old fashioned now. This is a movie that believes in true love (but not love at first sight, which is a distinction I appreciate) and that really believes that two people can be happy together. With a change in scenery and wardrobe, The Wedding Singer could have been made at any point in Hollywood between the 1930s and the 1950s. It’s a classic love story of two people who meet, fall in love, can’t be together, and then (spoilers) are able to work it all out.

I think the biggest reason the movie succeeds is because of the chemistry between the two leads, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. They are just so perfect in their scenes on screen together, both allowing their inherent vulnerability to be on full display. Sandler usually covers his up with his manchild routine, hiding behind voices in hopes that we’ll accept him anyway. But in The Wedding Singer, he’s almost completely unprotected. When he sings in the movie, he REALLY sings, and we realize that this guy actually has a decent voice and vocal range. Similarly, Drew Barrymore brings to her role what she brings to every role, which is herself. On a recent viewing with my wife, I leaned over and mentioned that every time I see Drew Barrymore in a movie I want to give her a hug. There’s a sweetness about her, an honesty and a kindness, that I can’t help but appreciate. We want these two to get together because we recognize that they’re made for each other. These two guileless people are meant to be together. A couple of years ago, Barrymore revealed on Howard Stern that she approached Sandler with the intention of persuading him to make an old-fashioned romantic comedy with her, so it’s not surprising that the vibe that permeates the movie was more or less her idea.
It’s interesting to me that these two actors have tried twice since The Wedding Singer to recapture that magic (in 2004’s 50 First Dates and 2014’s Blended) but haven’t quite been able to grasp what makes their first film together so special. I’m not suggesting that those newer performances don’t have the chemistry I’m talking about on display and that those movies are without merit, but I just find that The Wedding Singer seemed to be the right project, the right place, and the right time. I don’t even think it could be made today in the same way that it was made in 1998. This kind of movie, with its optimism and un-ironic sentimentality, would have a very hard time flying for modern movie audiences that demand something different and usually more grounded (cynical?) from their romantic comedies. The Wedding Singer is less interested in both nuanced realism or over-the-top shock comedy as it is in a Capra-esque romance that feels tailor made for Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert or Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane. That’s right, I just compared The Wedding Singer to the work of Frank Capra. And while the movie doesn’t quite make it into the same pantheon of Capra’s classics, I’m standing by my statement that it tries to and comes closer than anyone would have thought.

I remember seeing this movie in the cinema opening weekend (the theater was mostly empty) and being blown away that this was the new Adam Sandler film. I’d been expecting more of the same antics that were found in Billy Madison and Happy Gillmore (both co-written by Tim Herlihy, FWIW), but wasn’t prepared for how toned down Sandler’s performance is. His usual antics—the screaming, mostly—are here, but they’re pretty much window dressing for the main love story. This feels like an actor, a writer, and a director taking a big risk on something and seeing if they can turn in a story that’s less about dick and fart jokes and tries to tackle something more substantial. While the movie was a modest success and all my friends and I were talking about how great it was and how impressed we were with his acting, Sandler’s next few movies feel like a step backward into the protection of a comedic character to me. The next time we got to see a relatively straight performance from Sandler was in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, which I actually think goes too far in the other direction and gives him too much heavy lifting. I think I’m probably in the minority on this, though.
18 years after it was first released, I love The Wedding Singer more than ever. Part of it comes from the performances and what I attribute to the rarity and sincerity of the effort from those involved behind the scenes. But a large part of it has to do with my own ups and downs in the years since I first saw it. I had some misconceptions about love that led me down the wrong road for years, and I now look back and think that this movie had it right all along. Some relationships FEEL right, but when you step back and look at them, you realize just how much work it is to hold it all together. The Wedding Singer reminds us that relationships are so much better when it’s all effortless. Some things should just fit, and sometimes the people who fit the best are the last to realize it. Hollywood love like that found in a Frank Capra film may be old fashioned, but it never goes out of style. The Wedding Singer is our proof.


  1. Sandler and Barrymore were actually playing characters in this film, as opposed to Sandler/Barrymore types. The magic is watching two gifted actors playing likable characters falling in love.

    Sandler, to borrow a common phrase on this site, has been chasing this dragon ever since. Each subsequent film after The Wedding Singer has tried to match outrageous comedy with sentimental drama, while Sandler goes out of his way to date the latest indie actress desiring to be the next Hollywood leading lady.

    The Wedding Singer is rough sometimes around the edges, but that is part of its charm. The Sandler formula had not been mastered yet. But I do still have a soft spot for 50 First Dates. That last scene is still incredibly touching.

  2. Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler are so good in this movie that my sister still refuses to believe that they are not in together and in love in real life.