Like a lot of critics, I’ve been hard on Adam Sandler. Early in his career, I genuinely didn’t like the guy. In pictures like Billy Madison, Big Daddy and especially The Waterboy, he seemed intent on proving that he could be the most obnoxious person on the screen. Watching him was, to me, the cinematic equivalent of nails on a blackboard. Slowly, though, things have begun to turn around. I had an unexpected fondness for Little Nicky (a film most of Sandler’s fans hated), and I thought he raised his game opposite Jack Nicholson in Anger Management. I also thought Paul Thomas Anderson beautifully tapped Sandler’s unknown depths in the excellent Punch-Drunk Love. Sure, Sandler still turns out an occasional clinker like Mr. Deeds, or an excruciating bit of crudeness such as Eight Crazy Nights. Still, I’m warming up to the guy. This trend continues with 50 First Dates, which I think is his best mainstream film to date. (I consider Punch-Drunk to be an art film.)
Sandler plays Henry Roth, a veterinarian living and working in Hawaii. Henry is a womanizer who specializes in wooing female tourists. One morning he wanders into a local restaurant and spots Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) making a building out of her waffles. They strike up a conversation that lasts for hours. The instant connection pleasantly surprises both of them. Henry and Lucy make a date to meet for breakfast again the next morning. When he shows up, Lucy acts as though she doesn’t remember him. In fact, she doesn’t. Henry learns that a year earlier Lucy was involved in a car accident that took away her short-term memory. She can’t remember anything for more than a day. Her father Marlin (Blake Clark) and brother Doug (Sean Astin) expend a considerable amount of effort trying to hide Lucy’s condition from her. As a result, she lives every day believeing that it’s October of the previous year.
Henry’s affection is real, however, and he not only gives up womanizing but vows to build his relationship with Lucy even if she can’t remember who he is. Marlin and Blake at first oppose this, but then they realize that Lucy is happier on the days when she “meets” Henry. When a brain trauma expert (Dan Aykroyd) informs everyone that Lucy’s condition will never get better, Henry tries to devise a way of easing her into a daily discovery of her situation. Once she starts to catch on, there are some developments that threaten to tear them apart – which would certainly be easy – but Henry finds that he can’t live without Lucy, regardless of her lack of memory.
A number of thoughts run through my head when I think about 50 First Dates. The first is that I actually like Adam Sandler when he’s playing a normal person. In my review of Anger Management, I commented that Sandler’s comedy has always seemed to spring from an inner rage, so his films’ attempts at sweetness always rang false for me. Perhaps my statement should be amended to say that Sandler should either do one or the other instead of trying to temper his edgier work with sweetness. 50 First Dates has an abundance of sweetness and no anger, and Sandler is very good in it. He has a really nice everyman quality that makes Henry’s devotion to Lucy really touching.
Another thought is that Drew Barrymore is really wonderful. Okay, I admit having that thought a lot, because I consider her to be my favorite actress. In her best work - Boys on the Side, Never Been Kissed and especially the underrated Mad Love - Barrymore has shown a rare ability to get underneath the skin of her characters. She does more than play a character; she inhabits it. Although I enjoy seeing the actress in big Hollywood hits, I often wish that she played more adventurous parts in more ambitious movies. I honestly think her talent matches up with anyone’s, so why shouldn’t she get the kinds of parts played by, say, Renee Zellweger or Naomi Watts? In this case, Barrymore seems to have found a happy medium. 50 First Dates is as mainstream as movies come, but it also offers a great part for her. If you can’t believe Lucy’s predicament or the pain it brings her, the whole story would fall apart. Barrymore brings heart and humanity to the role.
There’s a nice blend of comedy and romance at work here. The humor is less crude than in some of Sandler’s other comedies, save for a bit early on in which a walrus projectile vomits on someone. One of the supporting characters is an elderly Hawaiian man who comments sarcastically on everything that goes on. He’s funny because we all know people who really do that. Henry’s attempts at creating new ways to “meet” Lucy are amusing too. Surrounding the funny bits are scenes that show us how deeply the characters feel for each other, even if one of them keeps forgetting it. The story moves in unexpected directions, and it takes Lucy’s condition seriously. Frankly, I expected a big dramatic ending in which Lucy’s memory returns. The screenplay (by George Wing) doesn’t do the expected. Instead, it offers an ending that is less formulaic and infinitely more heartwarming. The ultimate message is that true love finds a way to circumvent any obstacles. That’s an irresistible message.
(Stick around, too, for the end credits, which feature 311’s better-than-the-original version of The Cure’s “Love Song” which perfectly fits the film’s tone.)
Obviously, 50 First Dates is not a very original movie. It borrows heavily from Groundhog Day and Memento. A feeling of déjà vu occasionally came over me as I sat there watching it. Most of the scenes featuring Rob Schneider as Henry’s obnoxious buddy could have been excised as well. Schneider isn’t a particularly funny guy, so he’s merely a distraction here. Those flaws are certainly visible, but they aren’t enough to detract from what is otherwise a really terrific romantic comedy. I’m pleased to say that I walked out feeling all warm and happy inside – literally. I like any movie that can make me feel that way.
( out of four)
50 First Dates is rated PG-13 for crude sexual humor and drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
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