Archive for February 13, 2004

50 First Dates

February 13, 2004

A future as a romantic-comedy lead is Adam Sandler’s for the asking, if he asks for it. Thirty-eight this year, Sandler must know he’s getting a bit old for slob humor (even if his frequent confederate Rob Schneider, who turned 40 last year, doesn’t). His most appealing role in recent memory remains his good-hearted, gel-headed Robbie Hart in 1998’s The Wedding Singer, in which Sandler struck offbeat sparks with Drew Barrymore. Well, no one could accuse Sandler of not doing what worked before; his new 50 First Dates both reteams him with Barrymore and opens, like The Wedding Singer, the day before Valentine’s Day.

50 First Dates has a near-fatal flaw, but most of it moves with a genial, lulling rhythm, taking its cue from its setting (Hawaii) and its soundtrack full of ’80s hits recast as island melodies. Sandler is Henry Roth, a veterinarian at a Sea World-like park, administering remedies to penguins and dolphins and a dyspeptic walrus (the walrus is terrific, by the way). Awaiting breakfast in a diner new to him, he notices a radiant blonde — Lucy Whitmore (Barrymore) — building little houses out of her waffles. Henry has enough sense to be smitten by this detail, and the pair hit it off nicely. The next day, he sits across from her at the same diner and gets a cold brush-off.

Lucy has the movie version of short-term memory loss — like Guy Pearce in Memento, she can’t retain new memories. Every day is the same day for her, and she forgets it all the next morning, so Henry has to work that much harder for her love. He works in collaboration with Lucy’s dad (Blake Clark) and doofus brother (Sean Astin, bulked up and lisping insecurely) to break Lucy’s situation gently to her each morning; her dad and brother have been spending the past year making her believe that nothing has changed and that every day is the same day (which strikes me as a little creepy, but never mind — in any event, even if they were honest with her, she’d forget it the next morning).

It’s a neat premise, but maybe it would’ve worked better with a couple with a weaker rapport than Sandler and Barrymore. When they walk together mid-day, having built up enough familiarity to joke and mock-insult each other, they move and speak in tandem. This could be a magical screwball couple to brighten many other romantic comedies, but in 50 First Dates we keep getting pushed back to square one. It feels unnatural that their connection isn’t allowed to build, and though it allows Sandler some moments of pathos, we really don’t want to accept that Lucy doesn’t remember Henry from day to day. The comedy has a built-in depressing subtext, and not everyone finds the idea of catastrophic memory loss all that funny.

Still, the moments that Sandler and Barrymore can steal together are golden, and this might be the comic role Barrymore was born to play — her persona has always been built on flitting from one thing to the next while enjoying the ritual of her life. I won’t mind a bit if these two reconvene every few years; as Sandler approaches forty and Barrymore closes in on thirty, they might turn into the millennial version of Astaire and Rogers — she gives him sex appeal, and he gives her a liberating lack of class. 50 First Dates isn’t quite up to The Wedding Singer, with its lovelorn hopes spinning ’round like a record, but it makes Sandler into a hero of romantic perseverance and Barrymore into a glowing candle worth the chase.