With 50 FIRST DATES it seems as though Adam Sandler is going through an identity crisis of some sort. The film itself is an ill-conceived amalgam of sentiment played sweet not sappy, mixed uncertainly with the usual lower-than-low-brown humor with which Sandler’s films, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE excepted, are saturated. Hence the walrus spew scene less than ten minutes into this flick. Was the critical success of PUNCH DRUNK LOVE enough to give Sandler pause? To make him see beyond the puerile and the scatological into vistas of humor that appeal to the higher cortices of the brain? And is 50 FIRST DATES his simultaneous leap of faith coupled with a testament to the sort of separation anxiety rife in leaving behind an image that has brought him fame and fortune? That would explain much.
The story has our boy Adam playing Henry Roth, a vet at a Hawaiian marine park. When not ministering to the health needs of the penguins, the dolphins, and the nauseous walruses, Henry’s ministering to the prurient needs of the better looking tourists who flock to the island in search of wild sex and then leave with no strings attached. A botched college romance has made him commitment shy until he meets Lucy (Drew Barrymore), a gorgeous gal who, when Henry first lays eyes on her, is building a fort out of her breakfast waffles. It’s love at first sight when these two crazy kids hit it off and spend the morning together downing waffles, spam, eggs, and the heady brew of romance. There’s just one catch. Lucy has a temporal lobe injury, the result of a car crash on her father’s birthday, which shorted out her short-term memory. Everyday she wakes up thinking it’s the day the crash happened with no idea that a year has gone by. An illusion that her friends and family maintain with specially printed newspapers and endless birthday cakes. They just cant bring themselves to dim Lucy’s blithe happiness at believing it’s Sunday every day. It also means that every day Henry has to make Lucy fall in love with him all over again. Talk about your great premises.
Here’s the problem for the audience. The film shifts painfully between lame farce and sweet romance. Every genuinely affecting moment, such as Lucy’s repeated wonder at the magic of a first kiss with Henry, is undercut with stuff like the running motifs about the size of a walrus’ penis and the old Asian guy at the breakfast diner saying something that the FCC wouldn’t allow on television. That the film works on any level can be attributed to Barrymore, an infectiously ebullient personality who radiates charm as effortlessly as the sun radiates photons. She can do giddy in love and she can do heartbroken with equal aplomb and without breaking character. And make no mistake, it’s a tough job creating the only real female character in a film where every other woman in the film is either a harpy or a nymphette. Sandler himself occasionally rises to the challenge of playing a real person instead of a snarky caricature, but unable or unwilling to completely alienate his core fan base of boys 6-12, insists on reverting to the persona they adore every chance the script allows, which is too often. Alas. Even Lucy’s family, her father and brother (Blake Clark and Sean Astin) who are selfless enough to watch the same birthday present video (THE SIXTH SENSE and yes, the ending is given away) every night to keep Lucy from finding out the truth, aren’t allowed to be fully realized characters. Astin in particular, as the lisping, steroid-swilling bodybuilder wannabee, tosses his considerable acting skills aside in order to make his pecs dance in a way that is at once rhythmically impressive and grotesquely odd. As for Henry’s best pal Ula (Rob Schneider), suffice to say that he does an offensively bad Hawaiian accent and performs disturbing acts with coconut shells.
50 FIRST DATES could have been a sweet little fairy tale, you know, the beautiful princess awakened from her sleep of amnesia every day with a magical kiss by her Prince Charming. Too bad that not every fairy tale has a happily ever after.