“Memento” meets “Groundhog Day” in “50 First Dates,” a romantic comedy, written by newcomer George Wing, about an eager fellow who’s drawn to a girl with short-term memory loss. The fact that the duo is played by Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore is sufficient warning that the approach to this material is not going to carry much subtlety or refinement. Still, though the movie is too much like a typical Farrelly Brothers-era mixture of physical infirmity, crudity and sweetness, it doesn’t take the elements as insufferably far as might be expected. It’s not terribly good, but it isn’t terrible either; it’s both good-natured and sometimes quite funny.
The set-up of the movie is probably its weakest part. Sandler plays Henry Roth, a vet at a Hawaiian aquapark who romances tourists because he knows that the women will soon leave and he won’t be bothered by a long-term commitment. (He dreams of undertaking a year-long trip to study walrus behavior off the Alaskan coast, and doesn’t want entanglements.) The bit comes across as dumb, not only because Sandler is–sad to say–thoroughly implausible as an irresistible Lothario, but because his approach (pretending to be a secret agent) is so utterly lame.
But when the actual plot kicks in, things brighten somewhat. Henry meets Lucy Whitmore (Barrymore), an art teacher, at a neighborhood diner, and they hit it off. But a catch immediately arises: Lucy suffers from short-term memory loss as a result of a car crash–each night she forgets the preceding twenty-four hours and reverts to the day on which the accident occurred a year earlier, which she repeats endlessly. Her father Marlin (Blake Clark) and brother Doug (Sean Astin) go to great lengths to comfort her delusion by replaying that day (without the accident, of course) over and over again to suit her belief, and when Henry enters the picture, his presence threatens their ritual. But having fallen for the girl, and egged on by his raunchy local bud Ula (Rob Schneider), he arranges “accidentally” to bump into Lucy in some well-choreographed manner every morning and later, with her initially resistant family’s connivance, tries still other means to build a long-term relationship with her.
In all honesty this is not the most intelligent premise in the world (you have to suspend disbelief very far to accept that Lucy’s family and friends would go to such enormous lengths perpetually to soothe her wounded psyche), and one can easily imagine how dreadfully it might have been played. Here, however, an effort is made to keep the crassness to manageable levels and go for the niceness of recent Farrelly products like “Shallow Hal,” and the ending at least isn’t a complete cop-out. Sandler can’t lose his usual frat-boy smirkiness, but he does try for his more restrained “Wedding Singer”-“Big Daddy” style, with some success. Barrymore mixes ditziness with weepiness, and keeps the mixture more palatable than you might expect while meshing pretty well with Sandler’s brashness. And Clark and Astin do an amusingly low-key Alphonse and Gaston routine as Lucy’s protective dad and brother; some of the material given to Astin is pretty crude, to be sure, but he doesn’t exaggerate the tastelessness. Even his lisp–an old joke indeed–works. One may also note Jack Green’s luscious cinematography, which uses the Hawaiian locations to fine effect.
But there are still distinctly questionable elements. The biggest is Sandler’s old SNL buddy Schneider, who undoubtedly gets laughs as Henry’s gross, randy pal but represents a Polynesian caricature about on a level with Mickey Rooney’s notorious Japanese riff in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” There’s also Luisa Strus as Henry’s sexually ambiguous assistant Alexa–a gag that’s basically a retread of Julia Sweeney’s old “It’s Pat!” sketch (and the dreadful movie based on it), and not very funny anyway. And there’s an old fellow played by Joe Nakashima, who pops up periodically to offer some curmudgeonly comment on Henry’s ineptitude. (Is there anything funnier than a senior citizen using rude language? Well, actually, yes, there is.) The whole veterinary background also invites a huge amount of cute animal humor, much of it involving a highly demonstrative walrus and a precocious penguin, which some viewers will gush over and others will consider–like the reaction shots of dogs that litter Hollywood movies nowadays–rather like audience pandering. (The most extreme example comes in the throwing-up sequence that’s apparently inevitable in Hollywood comedies nowadays–here it’s the walrus that hurls, extravagantly.) And what in the world is Dan Aykroyd doing here as Lucy’s avuncular doctor? Did he just want a free ticket to Hawaii? Whatever the case, he adds nothing to the movie besides his ever-growing bulk, and his final dialogue–a crude bit of business that’s entirely out of character–comes out of nowhere. Peter Segal’s direction is lackadaisical, too; there are points at which one longs for more energy in the staging.
So “50 First Dates” is decidedly a mixed bag. Still, it has enough laughs and charm to be moderately engaging, a definite cut above the usual run of gross-out studio farces released nowadays. The mere fact that it’s not “Mr. Deeds” is a point in its favor.