As dorky comedies go, "The Wedding Singer" has an easy, affable charm. Frank Coraci's '80s-nostalgia comedy is predictable and unevenly paced, and it lunges too often for the easy joke. (You might wish you had a nickel for every time some outrageous or off-color comment springs from the mouth of a precocious youngster or a wrinkly old person.) Call it Old Home Week for aging new wavers: A sprawling selection of mid-'80s new wave classics -- from the sublime (Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?") to the ridiculous (Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy") -- sometimes seems to be the only thing holding the movie's loose-jointed scenes together. Billy Idol even plays himself.
Luckily, though, "The Wedding Singer" isn't just about our collective lapses in taste. There aren't nearly as many of those lurid taffeta bridesmaid dresses as you may fear (although one character does show up wearing a short, shiny, red leather jacket and a single silver glove). Coraci and screenwriter Tim Herlihy spend a fair amount of time asking the rhetorical question, "What were we thinking?" without quite milking it dry. The rest of the time we're treated to amusing cameos by the likes of Steve Buscemi and Jon Lovitz, coaxed into laughing at jokes that are so self-consciously dumb they make us giggle in spite of ourselves and invited to bask in the way Drew Barrymore lights up the screen whenever she's on it. There are worse ways to while away an hour or two in a movie theater. Ultimately, "The Wedding Singer" is ridiculous and surprisingly likable -- sweet, silly and light as a soap bubble.
In this suburban fairy tale, Robbie (Adam Sandler), who's given up on his rock band in order to make a buck as a wedding singer, meets Julia (Barrymore), a waitress, at one of his gigs. Robbie's the sweetest guy on the planet, as well as being a highly skilled schmoozer: He's adept at smoothing over wedding-day squabbles among families without blinking an eye, until his own fiancie leaves him at the altar. Then, despondent, he decides to concentrate on bar mitzvahs, which make him feel like less of a loser. Meanwhile, even as his friendship with Julia heats up, she forges ahead with her plans to marry a blockhead bond trader with a penchant for pastel T-shirts and "Miami Vice"-style jackets. (Her married name will be Julia Gulia.) She and Robbie fight their way through the usual false starts and misunderstandings before they figure out they were made for each other.
The movie is hobbled by one real groaner: Julia's fianci can't merely be wrong for her -- he also has to be a cheating womanizer in order to make Robbie seem even more sweet-tempered and true. There are plenty of jokes that try too hard, and some that are just plain mean-spirited: The third time we're asked to laugh at the overdone eyeliner and overwrought demeanor of a just-now-peeking-out-of-the-closet Boy George wannabe makes three times too many.
Occasionally Coraci adds some nice touches that seem like the work of a real filmmaker. As Robbie leads the drunken Julia out of a bar, walking her to her jerky boyfriend's DeLorean, the Psychedelic Furs' dreamy "Love My Way" wafts out of the club. As the car's passenger door opens, the song is momentarily drowned out by some Bryan Adams-type drivel blasting out of the car stereo, but it drifts back after the car door closes, with Julia, dazed but beautiful, inside.
Mostly, though, "The Wedding Singer" is more goofy than tender. Sometimes the gags are so knowingly absurd that they actually work, partly because Sandler understands how to send them up. When his old fiancie reappears on the scene -- he wakes up from a drunken stupor to see her leaning over his bed wearing one of his T-shirts -- he tells her to leave immediately, adding without missing a beat, "And please get out of my Van Halen T-shirt before you jinx the band and they break up." And when he heads to the big city to interview for a real job (the boring business guy to whom he's groveling is Kevin Nealon), his aggressive loopiness is disarming: "No, sir, I have no experience. But I'm a big fan of money. I like it. I use it. I have a little in the jar on top of my refrigerator. I'd like to put more in that jar. That's where you come in."
Maybe what's most surprising here is that Sandler doesn't just hammer his jokes; he's intent on giving a real performance, and by and large he actually manages it. Sandler's "Saturday Night Live" characters could sometimes be hilarious, but often they were little more than annoying, dull-witted spuds. With his half-closed eyes and his small mouth hanging open, he often looked as if his head was stuffed with cotton -- funny the first time you saw it, but not the kind of mugging that has a long shelf life. In his opening scene in "The Wedding Singer," Sandler hams it up in a bad tuxedo, mewling Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)," and although he's funny enough, the sequence makes you wonder if he isn't going to wear us down completely in the first half hour. Miraculously, he pulls back almost immediately. His acting technique consists mostly of pleasantly drawled line readings and a slow, easy, aw-shucks smile, but he at least knows how to make his character appealing.
Sandler is particularly touching in his scenes with Barrymore -- but then, she seems to bring out the sweetness in everybody she works with. I can't think of many young performers who have as much presence as she does. She has a cherubic, almost stylized kind of beauty, like a French doll from the '20s -- round brown eyes, two petite dots for a nose, a rosy cupid's bow for a mouth. Even when her character is looking green around the gills, Barrymore is a stunner. With her tendency to skip a little instead of merely walk, she seems barely earthbound, but her slight lisp and crooked smile reaffirm that she really is one of us. "The Wedding Singer" belongs mostly to her. Sandler may be the one who can carry a tune, but it's Barrymore who carries the movie.