20 Years Ago, ‘The Wedding Singer’ Forced 80s Nostalgia Down Our Throats
The 1998 Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore rom-com kicked off the wave of retro culture fetishization that was to follow.
Towards the end of the movie The Wedding Singer, which is set in the 1980s, Adam Sandler’s character Robbie races through an airport terminal to tell a woman he loves her. Now, keep in mind: This movie is set in the 80s. When Sandler gets to the ticket desk, he’s greeted by an airline employee sporting an unmistakable Flock of Seagulls haircut—the sides twisted up and a swoop of bleached fringe across his eye. See, this is funny because, being the 80s as it is, we viewers can think back to a time (the 80s) when A Flock of Seagulls was a popular band and how craaaazy our hairstyles were then, in the 80s. To drive the joke home for viewers who didn’t catch on to this sight gag which took up half the screen, the employee asks Sandler, “Hey, do you like Flock of Seagulls?” To which Sandler responds, “I can see you do.” Sure, that might not seem like a “joke” in the traditional sense, but what you have to remember is that The Wedding Singer was set in the 80s and it’s fun to laugh at things from the 80s.
That was the way The Wedding Singer got its setting across—as a punchline that it bludgeoned you over the head with until your Seagull swoop was wilted and bloodied. It’s a shame because, underneath the time-period browbeating, there might’ve been a decent romantic comedy in there somewhere, or at least comparatively to what was to come out of Sandler’s career. When the movie hit theaters on Valentine’s Day weekend in 1998, Sandler was a couple years removed from his anarchistic, post-SNL comedies Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996) and was about to ditch that for Sandler Phase Two, where he would churn out one zany character-driven comedy after another, including Little Nicky, The Waterboy, Big Daddy, and Mr. Deeds across a four-year stretch from late ‘98 to ‘02. But with the transitional outlier that was The Wedding Singer, there was potential.
As a rom-com, The Wedding Singer is… fine. If nothing else, it stands head and shoulders above its peers, though that’s a remarkably low bar to clear considering the endless line of Kate Hudson/Matthew McConaughey wedding-fever droll that would come to define the genre in the 2000s with films like, and this is just from memory, How to Groom a Groom in 10 Grooms, World War Wedding, and Brides, Motherfucker!. Sandler and co-star Drew Barrymore discovered a charmingly awkward chemistry together as they shared the same “likeable enough” leading role quality, which they’ve tried to replicate once a decade with 2004’s 50 First Dates and 2014’s Blended. And as a comedy, The Wedding Singer has a handful of halfway decent moments, including cameos from SNL alums Jon Lovitz and Kevin Nealon, an outlet for the guitar comedy Sandler became known for on Weekend Update with “Somebody Kill Me,” and the famous rapping granny scene, which filled pop culture’s mindless chuckle gap between the Dancing Baby and “The Thong Song.” But any momentum these scenes tried to build gets snuffed by the fact that The Wedding Singer cannot, for a single second, let you forget that it’s set in the 80s.
Plenty of movies and TV shows over the early 2000s tapped into 80s nostalgia for laughs, relying on the belief that the Spandex pants of the past were somehow less embarrassing than the JNCO jeans of the present. Some results were hacky, like the ill-fated That ’80s Show, which used a laugh-track to make jokes about cassette tapes seem funnier than they were. Some were sincere, like Freaks & Geeks, which showed a loving reverence for the culture of 1980. And some, like Wet Hot American Summer, took a meta approach to satirize the genre entirely. But none hammer the point home as obnoxiously as The Wedding Singer.
Like in the Flock of Seagulls scene, the movie can never get out of its own way, making a point to draw a huge circle around the joke until it’s lost anything vaguely resembling humor. It’s not enough for a character to simply wear a RELAX shirt; he has to point to it and quote the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song. It’s not enough for Barrymore’s playboy fiancé Glenn to dress like a character from Miami Vice; someone has to explicitly mention that it’s his favorite show. Madonna bracelets, Boy George makeup, Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” jacket—there is no wardrobe prop the movie doesn’t squeeze for every dollar of the rental fee. It’s like a dad repeating the punchline of his bad joke or a Halloween party where everyone is constantly revealing what their costume is.
Sometimes the 80s jokes are so clunky and tacked-on that they get in the way of the storyline. In the pivotal scene where Sandler and Barrymore share their first kiss, for example, any emotional weight the moment carries is promptly obliterated by Glenn busting through the door with his brand new CD player, because remember, CD players came out in the 80s, which is when The Wedding Singer is set! “You want to listen to records?” Barrymore asks. Of course not, Drew Barrymore! He wants to listen to CDs but you can’t wrap your tiny brain around that because you are but a simple woman of the 80s who is not yet familiar with the intricacies of compact disc technology like us modern audiophiles.
At its worst, the movie’s time-specific gags don’t even make sense. At one point, a character says that he’s watching Dallas and someone just shot J.R., a reference to an episode that aired in 1980, five years prior to when the movie takes place. In 2018, that’d be like someone talking about the series finale of Breaking Bad. Dallas, Van Halen, Freddy Krueger, Deloreans, Rubik’s cubes—this is the general bucket of neon shit The Wedding Singer paints over its flaws with. Although, to be fair, it’s a step above Sandler’s recent comedies like Grown Ups where he paints over script flaws with nothing at all, instead relying on the belief that he and his old SNL pals are inherently funny enough to naturally carry a movie.
Perhaps aided by the fact that The Wedding Singer was a forerunner of the 80s nostalgia wave (its release was not even a decade removed from 1989), the movie received fairly positive reviews at the time and still seems to be held in high regard among movie fans, and even spawned a Broadway musical. After all, people like remembering things, they like love stories where everything works out in the end, and they, for some inexplicable reason, like 80s music. The soundtrack undoubtedly helped earn the movie some cultural cache, with a list of songs by everyone from The Cure to Springsteen to Bowie. Billy Idol also makes a cameo in it and, it should be noted, does a stellar job of playing his younger self.
Twenty years after The Wedding Singer’s release and nearly 30 years since the end of the 1980s, 80s nostalgia is still being used on screen to mixed reactions. People generally enjoy the throwback undertones of Stranger Things, yet the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One stoked a horde of angry fanboys to gripe that the use of old arcade games and cartoons was pillaging their childhoods. But films like last year’s breakout hit Lady Bird, set in 2002, are proving that moviegoers are eager to move on and revisit a new distant past with the early aughts. Maybe audiences have gotten younger, or maybe they’re finally tired of movies like The Wedding Singer punching them in the face with Michael Jackson’s rhinestone glove, which, if you’ll remember, was worn in the 80s.
Dan Ozzi was born in the 80s. Follow him on Twitter.