50 First Dates (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

50 First Dates offers viewers a kinder, gentler Adam Sandler. Gone (at least for one movie) is the narcissistic adolescent caught in a perpetual state of arrested development. In his place is a likeable goofball whose rough edges are worn off by a force more effective than sandpaper: falling in love. Although there are moments that will tickle the bellies of longtime Sandler fans (one of which involves gallons of walrus vomit dripping from an individual of indeterminate sex), 50 First Dates is sweet enough to capture the attention, and perhaps affection, of those who would not ordinarily see a movie headlined by this particular star. The fact is, 50 First Dates is more of a romantic comedy than an Adam Sandler comedy.

Sandler's last romance, Punch Drunk Love, was deemed to be nearly unwatchable by his core constituency because they couldn't find anything funny in the way director Paul Thomas Anderson used their hero. 50 First Dates is more mainstream. The premise is a little off the wall, but those who are able to buy into it will find that the movie takes them places. Anyone incapable of overcoming the significant suspension of disbelief hurdle will discover that the plot holes and inconsistencies accumulate faster than January snow in Buffalo. It took a little while, but the film's genial nature eventually won me over.

If Memento represents the serious side of short term memory loss, 50 First Dates stands in for the comedic aspect. (It's a cut above Clean Slate.) Henry Roth (Sandler) is a Hawaiian veterinarian who spends much of his free time seducing female tourists. One day, while at breakfast, he encounters Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore). They strike up a conversation, and, before they know it, morning has become afternoon. Lucy has to go, but she agrees to meet Henry the next day for breakfast. 24 hours later, however, when he approaches her, she doesn't recognize him. The owner of the diner explains to him that, as the result of an accident, Lucy has lost her short term memory. Every night when she goes to sleep, she forgets everything that happened to her the day before. Thus begins Henry's quest to win her heart, even though he has to try repeatedly, and never gets more than about 12 hours with her. In addition, he has to deal with her overprotective father (Blake Clark) and flaky brother (Sean Astin, no longer looking after Frodo). The only one on his side is a pothead named Ula (frequent Sandler flunky Rob Schneider).

There's an element of Groundhog Day in 50 First Dates. Both films feature characters who repeatedly live the same day. Because of Lucy's memory loss, she awakens every morning and believes it to be a Sunday in October. Her father and brother are enablers, encouraging the fantasy in an effort to make her happy. But they wonder and worry what will happen when something occurs to permanently shatter the illusion. For Henry to have any hope to be with Lucy, he has to find some way to help her connect with her recent past. That involves a video camera and a diary.

The movie was made with fans of The Wedding Singer in mind, although, in my opinion, this is a vastly superior effort. Sandler and Drew Barrymore develop an easygoing connection that's heartfelt enough to be romantic. Granted, they don't exhibit white-hot chemistry, but it's suitably sweet without being too saccharine. Sandler has toned down his trademark obnoxiousness - his goal is for the audience to like him, and, by taking this approach, he hits the mark. Barrymore mixes flower-girl charm with kick-ass girl power. She's as tough here as in Charlie's Angels: witness how she beats the crap out of both Sandler and Rob Schneider.

Unlike in The Big Bounce, the flora and fauna of Hawaii don't upstage the actors. As I previously mentioned, the script is far from watertight, but director Peter Segal (who helmed the last Sandler movie, Anger Management) does something truly shocking for this kind of movie – he gets us to care enough about the characters that the idiotic plot elements aren't all that off-putting. If there's a downside, it's that, aside from a few notable moments of outrageousness, the comedy is both low-key and limited in its ability to generate laughs. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that the film doesn't resort to an easy cheat at the end. It plays things straight, and still manages to satisfy, making this one of Sandler's most appealing outings to date.

50 First Dates (United States, 2004)

Director: Peter Segal
Cast: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Sean Astin, Rob Schneider, Blake Clark
Screenplay: George Wing
Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Music: Teddy Castellucci
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 2004-02-13
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1