It’s just about impossible to dislike any movie that offers Rob Schneider getting the crap beaten out of him with a baseball bat. That plus an engaging penguin, a remarkably clever walrus, a good use of Paul McCartney’s gooey “Another Day” and a surprisingly effective, elegant performance from Drew Barrymore makes 50 First Dates a lot less irritating than other run-of-the-Sandler-mill offerings. All that combined ought to clue you in on the film’s central problem: Everything about it that’s appealing has little or nothing to do with its star.
That’s perhaps merely an outgrowth of a more inherent problem: the very concept that marine veterinarian Henry Roth (Sandler) falls in love with Lucy Whitmore (Barrymore), unaware that she has no short-term memory, and won’t remember him the next day. While it’s a clever (if medically suspect) idea, it also quickly paints itself into a corner. Where exactly do you take that premise — short of pulling out that old chestnut about someone regaining their faculties through another knock on the noggin? (Thankfully, this does not happen.) I don’t know, but what’s much more troublesome is that neither, apparently, does screenwriter George Wing, nor director Peter Segal, nor anyone else involved in the making of this film.
50 First Dates starts off fairly well, sketching in Henry as a commitment-phobic Hawaii-based lothario — whose flings, interestingly enough, seem to include at least one same-sex encounter (though there was more of this in the trailer than in the final cut of the film), briefly making it look like Segal’s movie might be a little more risky than usual. (Of course, the movie quickly backpedals, dragging in a character of indeterminate gender, thereby allowing Sandler to reassure his teenage-boy fan base that he’s “not into guys.”) It’s all lightly amusing, if not entirely believable, since Sandler just doesn’t make a terribly imposing figure as a “love god” (especially here, where he looks more than ever like Jerry Lewis in need of a some diet tips).
Henry’s first encounter with Lucy is classic “meeting cute” stuff, but it’s nicely done. This is followed by what is easily the film’s most accomplished sequence, involving Lucy’s father (Sandler regular Blake Clark) and brother (Sean Astin) going through their daily routine for Lucy when she first wakes up, convincing her that it’s the same day she thinks it is. All questions of believability and practicality aside, this bit is both funny and charming; yet no sooner is it over than the plot insists on dragging in the practicality issue — namely, how long this can go on before Lucy starts to realize that it can’t be the day she thinks it is? To this end, Henry decides — following a series of “dates” where he “meets” and woos Lucy anew each time — to bring her up to date for that day at least. It’s not a bad idea, but it shoots itself in the foot before, well, moving on to chase its own tail for another couple reels.
It’s never clear why Lucy’s family is less than thrilled by this onslaught of reality, because it quickly transpires that she’s found out the truth before. Then again, since her awareness isn’t going to last and everyone knows it, the effort seems wasted anyway. And it’s hard from here on not to realize that there’s no really satisfactory conclusion to the story. (The actual ending to the film is probably the best possible one, but it’s still not adequate.)
At this point, the movie does offer Sandler one of his better and more perceptive moments, when he apologizes to Lucy: “Sorry I’m not better looking.” It’s the most believable thing he does in the whole film, which otherwise shows the comic utterly at sea in search of a new screen persona.
P.T. Anderson’s quirky Punch-Drunk Love from 2002 explored and examined the extreme violence of Sandler’s screen persona; in so doing, the director raised all the right questions about Sandler’s popularity and his characters’ reluctance to look beneath the surface — any surface. The last Segal-Sandler effort, Anger Management, attempted something similar without apparently understanding what Anderson had done — and handing the movie over to an over-the-top Jack Nicholson in the bargain. With 50 First Dates, Segal tries something else — a violence-free Sandler that just doesn’t work.
The results are either bland, or alarmingly piecemeal. For example, Sandler’s character is suddenly made to erupt into song, accompanying himself on the ukulele. It was a gambit that worked in Nora Ephron’s misbegotten Mixed Nuts, where Sandler’s supporting character was a nebbishy guy who expressed himself — badly — in songs like this. But here it falls flat, because it’s impossible to reconcile the generally intelligent, educated veterinarian and the boob with the uke. That said, I applaud Sandler for trying to break out of his mold; there’s nary a scatological joke in sight, though I’m not 100-percent certain that bringing in a projectile-vomiting walrus is exactly a quantum leap in terms of maturity (and apart from the vicarious pleasure of seeing Schneider pummeled with that baseball bat, there can be no excuse for his presence).
Drew Barrymore, however, is a revelation here, and her presence makes the film notable. She actually turns Lucy into a touching, appealing and even believable creation — qualities I’ve never found Barrymore characters to be much blessed with before. It’s just too bad they’re housed in a movie that scarcely deserves them.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke