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BY John Prizer
The Wedding Singer fondly remembers—and pokes fun at—conventions of the recent past
For those of you who thought the 1970s revival films (Boogie Nights, The Ice Storm, etc.) brought to the screen an era best forgotten, brace yourself for the latest nostalgia-driven fad—movies that celebrate the 1980s.
For sure, the '80s had certain virtues. President Ronald Reagan and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher stiffened the backbone of the West to stand up to the Soviets and win the Cold War. These very same leaders also made a persuasive case for the free enterprise system, thus helping to discredit socialism.
But such positive events aren't what interests Hollywood. Its focus is on cultural trends, and the ‘80s were when the hedonism and sexual revolution of the ’60s and '70s counterculture went mainstream. This time period was also the first era in which young people's notion of culture seemed taken almost entirely from mass entertainment. Traditional institutions no longer had much influence,
The Wedding Singer, this winter's surprise comic hit, is set during the Reagan years and takes for granted a middle class whose values are governed by moral relativism and popular culture. The movie recycles many of the same classic screwball comedy situations used in last summer's blockbuster success, My Best Friend's Wedding, and Director Frank Coraci and screenwriter Tim Herlihy make sure The Wedding Singer's romance has the same kind of sweetness as its predecessor. But the film is also crammed with lewd jokes and unnecessary profanity and encourages a “why not” attitude toward all sexual encounters.
The year is 1985 when MTV was beginning to make an impact and CDs were replacing vinyl records, and the filmmakers get many of their laughs out of spoofing the music and fashions of the period. Robbie Hart (Adam Sandler) once seemed headed for rock star fame as lead singer in the spandex-wearing band, Final Warning. But now he's hustling to support himself singing at wedding receptions. Always the nice guy, he works hard at pleasing his new audience, making a special effort to see that the geeks and wallflowers at these events feel part of the celebration. He expects to get married himself very soon.
But Robbie's heart is quickly broken. His fiancee, Linda (Angela Featherstone), stands him up at the altar. Habitually decked out like one of the bimbos in a Van Halen video of the period, she's got no use for anyone who doesn't want to be a star.
Emotionally frazzled, Robbie turns nasty at his next gig, making fun of the newlyweds and getting punched out by the father of the bride. Only one person is sympathetic to his plight-Julia (Drew Barrymore), a waitress who works the same wedding reception circuit as he does. She accepts him for who he is and encourages him to try his hand at songwriting.
Robbie and Julia seem made for each other, but there's a problem. Julia's already engaged to a rich, arrogant Wall St. yuppie, Glenn Goulia (Matthew Glave), who behaves like a jerk in a particularly '80s fashion. In similarly themed movies of the past, a bond trader who's a scoundrel like Glenn would have been a pseudo-English gentleman with a snotty accent and even snottier attitudes toward his social inferiors. He would have favored fine wines, houses in the country, and proper dress for all occasions. Even though a bad guy, he would have observed all the social niceties.
Glenn, on the other hand, revels in looking and behaving like an outlaw. He flaunts a too-cool, hipster wardrobe copied from the TV series Miami Vice, and cheats on his fiancee whenever he can. In short, he's politically and economically conservative but has the morals of a rock star—a set of seemingly contradictory attitudes that first coalesced during the eighties and is still popular today.
Most of the other characters are cut from this same mold. Adam's best friend, Sammy (Allen Covert) is a limo driver who sports a Michael Jackson-like red leather jacket and wears a single glove. His highest priority, learned from TV sitcoms starring John Travolta and Henry Winkler (the Fonz), is the aggressive pursuit of every attractive woman with whom he comes into contact. Fortunately, Robbie declines to follow his example.
Julia's female soulmate imitates both the wardrobe and aggressive sexuality of pop singer Madonna. But she's also the first to see the sparks that are flying between Robbie and Julia. The rest of the plot turns on Robbie's efforts to win his true love away from Glenn.
The music on the soundtrack and sung by Robbie's band is eighties techno-pop originally performed by British and American groups like The Culture Club, The Thompson Twins, The B-52s, and The Cure. Tacky velour warm-up suits are the costume of choice for the men on the dance floor while their girlfriends move about in appliquéd metallic outfits. The movie also successfully satirizes the way these party animals indulge themselves in other fads from the period like Rubik's cubes and break-dancing.
The corniness and pretentiousness of the songs are often exaggerated for laughs, but the filmmakers also skillfully use their tuneful romanticism to grab us emotionally and get us to root for the young lovers. The chemistry between Robbie and Julia is winning, and with stars in their eyes they ignore all the garbage swirling around them.
The movie's biggest surprise is that despite its permissive morality, the '80s seem a more innocent time than today. Back then there wasn't as much violence, everyone had hope, and people were less self-conscious. When contrasted with the deep cynicism of the '90s, The Wedding Singer seems like a throwback to a golden age.
The U.S. Catholic Conference classification of The Wedding Singer is AIII: adults. The film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America.
Arts & culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.