If you are going to buy 50 First Dates even just a little, you’re going to have to engage in an Herculean suspension of disbelief. It’s not the plot device that requires you to accept that Drew Barrymore’s character has a neurological condition that wipes out her short-term memories each night while she sleeps. It’s not even the idea that Rob Schneider playing a Polynesian isn’t as offensive as if he’d put on blackface to play an African-American. No, it’s a leap of faith Carl Lewis couldn’t have made at high altitude while wearing Acme Brand Spring-Loaded Sneakers: buying Adam Sandler as a love-’em-and-leave-’em ladies’ man.
Ever since 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, a crazy rumor has been circulating that Sandler has dramatic range as an actor. The harsh reality is that writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson simply did a brilliant job of tapping into the fundamental building blocks of Sandler’s comedy—arrested adolescence and barely-controlled hostility. 50 First Dates, on the other hand, casts Sandler as the consummate pick-up artist lover-man, which is a laugh, and not at all in the way this wildly inconsistent comedy wants you to laugh.
See, Sander is playing Henry Roth, a Honolulu ocean-park veterinarian whose chief delight is seducing tourists, offering vacation flings with no prospect of long-term entanglement. Enter Lucy (Drew Barrymore), whom Henry meets one morning in a diner. They hit it off over breakfast, but unfortunately Lucy suffers from the aforementioned short-term memory malady as the result of a head trauma. That means that every day, Henry is forced to win Lucy over again. And again. And again.
Beyond the Memento-meets-Groundhog Day pitch meeting premise, 50 First Dates goes to great lengths to duplicate the formula that made a success of Sandler and Barrymore’s previous collaboration, 1998’s The Wedding Singer. While it’s not set in the 1980s, 50 First Dates employs plenty of cover versions of 1980s pop songs (you don’t know bizarre until you’ve heard a Ziggy Marley intepretation of The Cars’ “Drive”). It’s even opening on the same date—Feb. 13—six years later.
Mostly, however, it’s going for that demographic twin-killing of appealing both to Sandler’s guffawing young male audience and women keen on a sweet romantic comedy. While The Wedding Singer somehow managed to make that juggling act work, in 50 First Dates, it’s hard to believe the clash of tones isn’t actually some kind of sick joke. One moment, you’ve got projectile vomiting; the next, you’ve got lovers standing in a sun-dappled meadow. Director Peter Segal (Anger Management) and screenwriter George Wing swing from the cheapest humor—foul-mouthed senior citizens, animal reaction shots, manly Eastern European women, speech impediments—to the cheapest kinds of sentimentality in a heartbeat. It would almost be impressive, if the comedy weren’t so brutally juvenile, and the romance so jolting.
The fact that 50 First Dates isn’t a complete disaster can only be credited to Barrymore, who plays this kind of luminous free spirit with an intoxicating warmth. She’s a woefully underappreciated actor, delivering a performance here as the kind of girl it’s easy to understand falling in love with every day. Comparisons to Groundhog Day make 50 First Dates look inept in almost every other possible way, but ponder this for a moment: If Drew Barrymore had played the Andie MacDowell role, Groundhog Day’s only flaw would be eradicated.
Conversely, ponder 50 First Dates as a Bill Murray vehicle, and you get a sense for how wrong Sandler is for this part. Of course, Murray probably wouldn’t even have considered it, since the screenplay is idiotically structured to turn Henry from playa to love-happy goof pretty much the instant he meets Lucy. There’s nowhere for the character to go, leaving a whole lot of time to fill with inane attempts at big emotional catharsis alternating with gags about the size of walrus penises. He’s just Adam Sandler, playing Adam Sandler.
Whole volumes could be dedicated to the ethically sticky question of whether this romantic dalliance with a brain-damaged woman is uplifting or revolting, but 50 First Dates fails long before it gets to that point. It failed as soon as Sandler signed on to play a stud muffin-turned-sensitive guy. That’s a nightmare moment those who endure the film are going to have to recall again. And again. And again.
50 FIRST DATES, **, Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Rob Schneider, Rated PG-13