The Sound of Muzak

"When did she get to be a beauty? When did he grow to be this tall?": Barrymore and Sandler in The Wedding Singer.Photo: K. Wright/New Line Cinema

The naughty profanities that one used to hear 40 years ago in the routines of a Catskills comic anyone can now hear in the albums and movies of Adam Sandler, who is a kind of suburban-sandlot descendant of the old foul-mouthed entertainers. Sandler is young, and his comedy is directed at kids; there’s an occasional touch of knockabout cruelty in it as well as a love of the grotesque. Comedy has gotten wilder – or at least coarser – in the past few decades, and I suppose that some of Sandler’s jokes would have made the blue-rinse ladies of 1954 cringe more than laugh. Yet Sandler, it must be said, has a soft spot in his heart for old ladies. In his 1996 movie Happy Gilmore, he played a wildly undisciplined failed hockey player, an orphan raised by his grandma. When grandma’s house gets impounded by the IRS, he joins a professional golf tour in order to raise money and reclaim the house. Part of the joke of the movie is that this uncouth young man is just sick with love for his grandmother. In Sandler’s new comedy, The Wedding Singer, set in 1985, he’s a suburban New Jersey entertainer at weddings and “functions,” a charmer with damp long hair who makes eyes at aunts and uncles as he sings. On the side, he gives voice lessons to an old lady (Ellen Dow), and at the end of the movie, in celebration of her fiftieth wedding anniversary, she, with perfect rhythm and plenty of gusto, sings the Sugarhill Gang rap song “Rapper’s Delight.” You go, girl! Surely Mel Brooks was never that nice to old ladies.

Adam Sandler can scream, but he doesn’t overwhelm us with noise and screeches like Jim Carrey. Huge and alarming, with wildly thrashing limbs and menacing teeth, Carrey wants to swallow the world. Sandler is big, too – rangy and athletic – but he’s not that big; he seems like an overgrown suburban boy much in need of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and a room under the roof to mope in. He’s basically a mild fellow who wants to get along and make his way in the world, though from time to time, weird aggressions burst out of him. In Happy Gilmore, he wears a hockey uniform even on a snazzy golf course, where he occasionally breaks into club-throwing rages and hires, as a caddy, a filthy bum who takes baths in the fairway water. He’s not a conscious rebel; he just hasn’t been socialized yet. At the tee, Sandler steps into his drives like a hockey player gathering momentum for a slap shot. Fore! The ball travels more than 400 yards. An outsider, a pretender, Adam Sandler is a seeming loser who has too much determination to be kept down. He’s a loser who’s really a winner. Other men hate him – he’s the adolescent they have painfully left behind – but girls think he’s cute. Like Buster Keaton and other great comics, Sandler has a shy, nuzzling way with the ladies. He spends most of The Wedding Singer making eyes at Drew Barrymore, who plays a plump angelic blonde.

Part of this comic is a nice Jewish boy. Even the profanities are nothing more than the outrages perpetrated by an adolescent at the family dinner table. The dirty words add savor to the meal – certainly this kid expects to be forgiven before dessert. Like Allen Sherman 30 years ago, Sandler sings silly satirical songs the whole family can enjoy. On Sandler’s album How Did I Get Here? there’s a Hanukkah song with lines like “O.J. Simpson / Not a Jew / But guess who is? / Hall-of-famer Rod Carew.” That’s a pandering lyric, actually, that the blue-rinse ladies at the Concord might like. Adam Sandler wants to please. On the same album, there’s also an extremely profane ballad, in reggae style, dedicated to a terrible lemon of a car. This song is not a put-down of reggae – its mild shock lies in the dirty words falling into the lulling regularities of the ballad. Middle-class kids love Adam Sandler because his foul mouth is something they know they can get away with.

On the other hand, the nice Jewish boy has a streak of anger; he can’t be pushed. In The Wedding Singer, Sandler begins one of his songs before a crowd in a quiet, mousy voice and then breaks into a murderous punk whine, passing back and forth throughout the song, schizophrenia as entertainment. In Happy Gilmore, the nice boy and the surreal bad boy were held in balance; in The Wedding Singer, despite a few outbursts, the nice boy wins out, and not with the best results. It’s a pleasant movie – very pleasant, in fact – but soft as a down quilt. The wedding singer is not only the life of the party; he’s a part-time shrink, a peacemaker who brings people together. Of course, no one takes him very seriously. Why would anyone wed a man who sings at weddings? Will this schlumpy guy defeat an overconfident Wall Street type and win Drew Barrymore? The movie is a tame affair, shot on calm, manicured streets; the interiors are decorated in pastels. Adam Sandler, a gifted young man, may be comfortable in the suburbs, but if he’s going to become a big comedy star in the movies, he’s got to either blow the place sky-high or get away and find a more challenging turf. He makes comedy about the underside of blandness. In The Wedding Singer, the blandness threatens to take over.

The Sound of Muzak