Tuesday, November 30, 2010
The Wedding Singer (1998, Frank Coraci)
I was born in 1986 and when I was about eight years old I decided that the 1980s were the greatest decade. Initially this was due to the discovery of old faded Garbage Pail Kids stickers inside the lockers of my elementary school, and their maddening, tantalizing scarcity before eBay put everyone's childhood relics up for sale. I also soon discovered that my favorite film was Gremlins and my favorite band was Devo. These three products shared one commonality: nobody I knew in the present had heard of all three, or cared about one. There were new movies and music available which didn't need explanations to strangers. Yet the 1980s simply had more movies that were more like Gremlins and more bands that used synthesizers than what was new and readily available during the Clinton administration. I started to sincerely believe I had been born just a few years too late for my tastes.
I didn't understand for a long time that I had simply cultivated an affectation which prevented myself from enjoying the present as a matter of snobbery. I was as the narrator of Daniel Clowes' 1995 Eightball story "MCMLXVI": misanthropically obsessed with 1966 as the pinnacle of American pop culture. Having been born that year, he's forever chasing an idealized fantasy. The irony of such obsessions is that people with discriminating tastes have to make an effort of finding culture they enjoy in any decade, and often don't find out about a neat movie or band or what have you until many years after the debut.
There's another, more ominous publication useful for understanding the commodification of nostalgia: an article from the November 4, 1997 The Onion titled US Dept. Of Retro Warns: 'We May Be Running Out Of Past". The joke is that there was 1950s retro in the 1970s and ironic 1990s retro for the 70s, i.e. Grease and Happy Days does not account for this. The satirical piece also asserts that the retro gap has been closing since people started talking about the 1980s too soon, and if current levels of consumption go unchecked we may run out of past by 2005. For anyone annoyed by crass, mass-marketed retro this was a pretty funny article.
What The Onion writers only touched on was that Generation X's "appreciation" of their childhoods was a form of passive aggressive infantilism designed to eliminate the distinctions of adulthood. This is why the humorous 2005 prediction hasn't fanned out, and 1980s retro is still in stride circa 2010. Going back to eBay for a moment: I certainly wasn't the only one who bought old games and toys that I wasn't even alive for the first time around. The Internet helped kill the idea of past pop culture's scarcity - first toys on eBay, then clips on YouTube - as fearfully aging boomers and Gen X-ers began to conglomerate their collective junk memories into a common language. This assures both parties that their Tron reference will remain relevant whether they were 5, 15, 25 or negative-5 years old in 1982.
The first episode of Family Guy aired January 31st, 1999. Tron: Legacy is released in theaters December 17th, 2010. These are not unrelated incidents.
The Wedding Singer is a charming movie deserving the rare approbation of having something for everybody. As far as the retro angle is concerned, I'm baffled as to how the 1985 period setting was chosen the same year That 70s Show premiered. Were the 1980s a boom decade for the wedding singer trade? Probably not, the story could take place in any day. More likely, writer Tim Herlihy and Adam Sandler wanted to feature an assortment of retro songs in their movie about a greatest-hits singer and noticed the whole "70s" thing was being overplayed. Instead they decided to beat everyone to the punch of goofing on the 80s, without realizing that relics of the 80s were going to be taken just as seriously as anything new in the years to come.
The fashion references are a lot funnier than the name droppings. Costume Designer Mona May is almost as funny as anyone in front of the camera, inviting the audience to crack up as Sandler's buddy Allen Covert casually enters scenes in Miami Vice or Michael Jackson getups and no one bats an eye. A modern remake would undoubtedly waste time explaining each getup instead of being so mercifully understated. Only in the final climactic scene does the retro become too obnoxiously self-aware, for the sake of a Billy Idol cameo that feels written by a young Seth MacFarlane. Most of the other references are fortunately casual enough to be innocuous and sometimes even irreverent: there's something about Sandler shrugging off a child in a Freddy Krueger mask which underscores the absurdity of the decade that let kids dress up as disfigured child murderers. Not so subtle are shoehorned clunkers like "Hang on hon, I'm watching Dallas! I think J.R. might be dead or something, they shot him!"
Drew Barrymore would be inspired casting if Wes Craven hadn't already used her as an emblem of the decade two years earlier in Scream. On a subtextual level, she's the only ironic touch. While the rest of the cast including Sandler and especially her cousin Christine Taylor have their 80s style played up, Barrymore is obviously closer to contemporary. Mona May's gaudy costumes and hairspray were probably considered unbecoming an up-and-coming recovering actress like herself. Even if her vanity was what made the call, thematically the chick flick trope that she's the special one-and-only meant to be with Sandler provides a rationale for quasi-timelessness in her character's personal style. Her acting is as competently plastic as any other of her adult roles, and Sandler obviously likes looking at her, but she's a cipher. Christine Taylor makes a more lasting impression and she's funnier playing off either one of them.
The Wedding Singer lets Adam Sandler do something he's maybe done one and a half other times in his entire career: play an underdog who's neither an insensitive jerk nor an idiot. This was what won me over. He gets punched out twice and doesn't even return the favor to his romantic rival at the end; it's amazingly restrained compared to the rest of his body of work. His funniest scenes are in reaction to others and Herlihy justifies his few freakouts. The one major breakdown scene was unsurprisingly the most heavily featured in the trailer. That and the rapping granny are what kept me away from this flick until so recently. This is a more challenging role for Sandler than his supposed range-stretching in Punch-Drunk Love and more rewarding to non-Sandler fans like myself. The story's a logical outlet for his usual persona and shtick, including his silly guitar songs. Speaking of logical outlets for particular performers, Jon Lovitz's cameo is just as well done as Steve Buscemi's infamous best man speech in that Buscemi can also be hilarious as the star of the film whereas a small dose of Lovitz is best.
The other most distinguishing accomplishment of the film is the unwieldy combination of Adam Sandler Movie and Chick Flick. You'd never guess Herlihy wrote Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. He and Sandler deftly push all the right emotional aww-buttons for girls while being just rude enough for the men. The only bone thrown to men might be the 80s itself, when middle class women started dressing like whores. Female viewers get Adam Sandler pining for marriage and kids, an adorable old couple happily celebrating their anniversary, Sandler serenading Barrymore with a song about growing old together, Barrymore choosing to dance with the lonely fat kid at a Bar Mitzvah, and a good old fashioned million-to-one stunt by Sandler which rebuffs Barrymore's cheating yuppie fiancee for true love. If all "rom-coms" were as funny and satisfying to both genders as this one, there might finally be peace between us instead of animosity encouraged by the dick kicking parties that the subgenre regularly churns out.
Within the context of no context the 80s stuff in The Wedding Singer has paradoxically made it more relevant to cultural consciousness today than when it was released. The perfect alchemy of Sandler and schmaltz is a genuine feat. When some executive gets around to green lighting the movie of the musical based on the movie, like The Producers or Hairspray, we'll know for sure we've finally run out of retro.