It’s a love/hate thing with Adam Sandler. Critics don’t send him valentines. “Mindless,” “inane” and “remarkably juvenile” are the kinder blurbs his comedy has elicited. But in the hearts that beat in horny adolescents of all ages and react to such joke lyrics as “dry-hump the floor with Mary Tyler Moore” or “the stars will show you how to dance/Like you just shit your pants,” Sandler is king. The cult loves his three albums of comedy and music even more than it loves the Opera Man and Canteen Boy routines he honed on Saturday Night Live between 1990 and 1995 – because you can be dirtier on CD than you can on TV. And just as crude onscreen. In Billy Madison, Sandler and his pals swig booze in the pool and wait for “Nudie Magazine Day.” In Happy Gilmore, about a foulmouthed and fouler-tempered hockey jock who joins the golf circuit and gets the crap beaten out of him by, of all people, Bob Barker, Sandler was free to indulge in gross gags about flatulence and excrement.
Now comes The Wedding Singer, Sandler’s latest cinematic assault, and – surprise – it’s a sweetheart of a comic romance. Sandler, who recently turned thirty-one, wants to be loved. Is that so wrong? It may be to his hard-core fans. Look what happened when Howard Stern showed a tender side in the under-seen and underrated Private Parts. The crude edge is off Sandler’s humor this time – there is no spraying of feces. Instead, Sandler plays Robbie Hart, a wedding singer who delights his suburban audience circa 1985 – that’s before cell phones, Rollerblades and the Internet – until bride-to-be Linda (Angela Feather-stone) dumps him at the altar. Affable Robbie is soon transformed into an unshaven cynic who snarls “Love Stinks” to stunned young marrieds and their families. It takes the love of a good waitress named Julia (the ever-adorable Drew Barrymore) to reform him.
What I’m leading up to is that The Wedding Singer is a decently entertaining movie. Don’t be shocked. Sandler has been funny before. Think of his “Chanukah Song,” with the lyrics “Paul Newman’s half-Jewish; Goldie Hawn’s half, too/Put them together, what a fine-lookin’ Jew.” And there are scenes in Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore – sorry, I can’t condone Bulletproof, except for Sandler’s parody singing of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” in the shower – that reward the repeat viewings that have made those films video faves. If you’ve failed to credit Sandler for his distinctive comic persona, even the modest pleasures of The Wedding Singer may come as a surprise. Reports from early screenings have overhyped the film as “a Graduate for the nineties.” Whoa! Didn’t somebody make that claim for The Pall-bearer, the David Schwimmer flop?
If anything, The Wedding Singer is Sandler’s Nutty Professor, a chance for him to show his nice and nasty sides in one film, as Jerry Lewis did in the 1963 original and Eddie Murphy did in the 1996 Nutty remake. Robbie sings a schizoid song that he wrote before and after his breakup with Linda. Sentiment turns to bile as Robbie shrieks about love being “all a goddamn joke,” and his wishes for Linda boil down to “I hope you fuckin’ choke.” But Sandler never cuts as deep as Lewis or Murphy. His dark side is mostly a boyish mischief. It’s the likable Robbie who stays front and center, the guy who feels for the losers and believes in the lyrics of his cornball ballads. P.S. The eighties soundtrack, from Culture Club (“Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”) to Billy Idol (“White Wedding”), is a hoot, and Idol contributes a fun cameo.
The Wedding Singer is less a revelation than a giant step toward the mainstream for Sandler. Writer Tim Herlihy, producer Jack Giarraputo and director Frank Coraci – all Sandler buddies from New York University – temper their frat-boy gags in favor of buoyant romance. Sandler and Barrymore make a winning team. His lost-puppy look and her smile – the closest thing to sunshine in movies – are ideal for characters who are too shy to put the moves on each other. Instead, Robbie tries to wean Julia away from her skirt-chasing fiance, Glenn (Matthew Glave), and Julia tries to keep her pal Holly (Christine Taylor) out of Robbie’s pants. For comic counterpoint, Sandler affectionately teases the eighties: “Hey, psycho,” Robbie tells Linda, “get out of my Van Halen T-shirt before you jinx the band and they break up.” Nightmares in eighties hair and fashion are all manifested in Robbie’s friend Sammy (Allen Covert). What Sandler never teases is the love story. Smart thinking. Sincerity looks good on him and blends nicely with the film’s twisted lunacy. For those who’ve written Sandler off as a taste not worth acquiring. The Wedding Singer offers a strong case for reconsideration.