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50 First Dates

2004fiftyfirst

Movie review by Greg Carlson

At first, “50 First Dates” looks like just another Adam Sandler vehicle, but the presence of Drew Barrymore immediately neutralizes Sandler’s typical focus on the scatological and infantile. The result is a sweet-natured romantic comedy that shows off the beauty of the Hawaiian islands far more successfully than the recent stinker “The Big Bounce.” Directed by “Tommy Boy” and “Anger Management” helmer Peter Segal, “50 First Dates” refreshingly shifts the vulgarity (mostly) to the background – though Sandler fans will be pleased to know that torrential walrus vomit, baseball bat smackdowns, and testicle jokes remain on the menu.

Sandler plays commitment-phobic Henry Roth, an affable veterinarian whose closest friends include a host of marine mammals and Ula (perpetual sidekick Rob Schneider), a native Hawaiian with one good eye and a small herd of children. Even though Schneider’s character exists exclusively for the sake of puerile humor, there is a slight offensiveness about his depiction – audience members might call to mind Mickey Rooney’s gruesome stereotype Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” While Ula lives vicariously through Henry’s sexual conquests (one of the sourest notes in George Wing’s screenplay), Henry’s life takes a new turn when he happens upon the girl of his dreams at a local diner.

The course of true love, especially in an Adam Sandler movie, is not terribly likely to be smooth. The girl spotted building a tiny house out of her waffles is Lucy (Barrymore), and she suffers from a weird kind of short-term memory loss: she can remember everything in her life up to moment she suffered serious head trauma in a car crash. Each morning, however, she wakes up thinking it is her father’s birthday – the day of the accident – and starts all over again. Locked into a never-ending loop of the present, Lucy’s loved ones play along, and the results are surprisingly clever and interesting.

Conceptually, “50 First Dates” resembles a kind of cross between “Memento” and “Groundhog Day,” though it is nowhere near as satisfying as either of those titles. In trying to desperately to win Lucy’s affection, Henry devises a series of inventive interactions that transcend the typical expectations one might have for a movie of this type. In fact, his unwavering dedication to making things work with Lucy resembles the more thoughtful, deeper Sandler of “Punch Drunk Love,” and this is a most pleasant surprise, because the older model’s strident braying and smug narcissism always wore out its welcome quickly.

Barrymore and Sandler were good together in “The Wedding Singer,” and they continue to sparkle with terrific chemistry in “50 First Dates.” Barrymore is a gifted comic, and she takes sly pride in delivering several of the movie’s funniest jokes. She also manages to find the sadness in Lucy, which is no mean feat considering the ridiculousness of the far-fetched premise. In addition to the warm conviviality of the leads, the supporting cast, which includes Dan Aykroyd, Sean Astin, and Blake Clark, is memorable and well utilized by the director. “50 First Dates” projects a winning combination of humor and charm, and should satisfy moviegoers eager for romance and laughter.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/19/04.

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