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50 First Dates   B-

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Segal
Writer: George Wing
Cast: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Schneider, Sean Astin, Blake Clark.

Review by Rob Vaux

Adam Sandler -- confounder of critics, lord of the uninspired, comedy's inexplicably popular crown prince -- has returned. And once more, his schizophrenic persona threatens to derail an otherwise acceptable premise. The dilemma is all too familiar. On the one hand, there's Sandler the nice guy: softhearted, unassuming, eager for our smiles of approval. On the other hand, there's Sandler the prick: the one who licks up his own bile and can think of nothing funnier than tormenting the local misfits. Somewhere between them lies a hysterical character, but it takes a lot to strike that balance. Most of the time, we get some grotesque combination of the two: a raging asshole who shamelessly courts our sympathy.

The worst moments of 50 First Dates confirm this hypothesis, as Sandler's Hawaii-based marine vet Henry Roth displays the usual sad cruelty of all his ilk. He lies his way through flings with visiting tourists, makes public knowledge out of private embarrassments, and in the piece de resistance encourages a walrus to vomit all over his androgynous coworker (because, you know, she's a chick who looks like a guy, and therefore has it coming). Furthermore, as the star, Sandler refuses to take the brunt of any joke himself, preferring to dish out the pratfalls while laughing behind his hand. The tendencies have potential -- Bill Murray knew how to mine the humor from similar bastards -- but with Sandler, they simply feel sadistic. He's not helped by the subtle way in which personal ego takes precedent over the project as a whole, or by costar Rob Schneider (playing Henry's brain-addled best friend) who proves once again what disturbing lengths he'll go to for a chuckle.

And yet somewhere early on, 50 First Dates finds the courage to tone all of that down, to diminish Sandler the jerk and focus on Sandler the softie. Henry soon meets art teacher Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore), and is quickly smitten by her warm laugh and sparkling smile. He's even willing to forgo his usual hump-and-dump policies because he believes there's something special about this girl. He has no idea how special... and therein lies 50 First Dates' vaunted high concept. Lucy lost her short-term memory in a car accident; every day, she wakes up with no knowledge of her life since then. If Henry wants to woo her, he's going to have to do it over and over again, "meeting" her for the first time each and every morning.

The arc is predictable, as the gadabout slowly discovers true love through much toil and sacrifice. But it has a core of sweetness that's undeniable, and which allows the humor to grow beyond the fart jokes. Perhaps aware of their debt to the inky-black Memento, Sandler and director Peter Segal keep the tone feather light, and though frat boy moments still poke through, they become fewer and more far between as the film moves forward. It's a smart play that owes a lot to the chemistry between the leads. Barrymore possesses the same juvenile mischievousness as her costar, but tempers it with a gentle grace that makes it infinitely more pleasant. With her in his sights, Sandler turns on the puppy-dog charm, and together they manage to sell us on their daffy romance.

It helps, too, that 50 First Dates doesn't coast on its base notion. Henry's increasingly heartfelt efforts to win his girl find amusing roadblocks in her protective father (Blake Clark) and brother (Sean Astin, a bit of a scene stealer), and in her friends at the restaurant that she frequents. They all work to keep Lucy in the dark about her condition, but Henry realizes that perhaps there's a better way, and Segal tailors the gags to match that instinctive goodwill. The results are slight, but contain enough variety to hold together, allowing us to enjoy the characters without being overwhelmed by the occasional bouts of nastiness.

Would that Sandler could stay away from that nastiness more consistently... or better yet, combine it with his kinder half in ways that don't test our patience. He did it once in the marvelous Punch-Drunk Love and some of us are waiting -- praying -- that he can do it again. 50 First Dates doesn't get there, but it does offer a little modest entertainment... something far too few of his other vehicles have done. Sandler's fans will be quite pleased, of course, and the actor brings plenty of his standard shticks to the table (including a quasi-amusing new song performed on the ukulele). I mentioned Memento earlier; the film actually more closely resembles Dana Carvey's Blank Slate, though it's much sunnier and with Sandler at the helm should draw more of a crowd. This time, at least, that doesn't feel like such a bad thing.

Review published 02.13.2004.

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