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50 First Dates Print E-mail
Friday, 13 February 2004
ImageWhen Adam Sandler made “The Wedding Singer” several years ago, even his non-fans were pleased, and hoped for him to try something similar again. Instead, he followed, with uneven financial success, with a string of crude, self-consciously “tasteless” and vulgar comedies. (“Punch-Drunk Love” doesn’t count, as he was not the originator of that project.)

“50 First Dates” is what the disillusioned bystanders have been waiting for: it’s mostly a gentle, intelligent romantic comedy that reunites Sandler with his “Wedding Singer” costar, Drew Barrymore. Most of the exteriors were shot on Oahu, but it’s the locals’ Hawaii—there isn’t a single shot of a beautiful beach or of Diamond Head. The locations are beautiful and well-chosen, but they depict something other than the tourist Hawaii. It’s a remarkably attractive movie, and most of the characters are likeable. It has a few drawbacks, though knowing they’re coming up will easily get non-Sandlerites through the film painlessly.

We first hear of Henry Roth, Sandler’s character, before we meet him through a few lines of praise from a variety of gorgeous tourists now back home after a, well, stimulating vacation in Oahu. We learn he’s a smooth seducer who has a polished line of bull that gets him out of further entanglements when the tourists go home. (In a quick clip, we see one is a man, but this is just a throwaway gag.)

Henry works at Sea Life Park as an animal handler specializing in walruses. (The scenes with the walruses were shot at a different park in northern California.) His co-worker is the homely, somewhat androgynous Alexa (Luisa Strus), a Russian, who’s the butt of the crudest, most unwelcome humor. The movie has barely started before a walrus vomits voluminously on her. Don’t grab your coat and head for the exit just yet.

At a little café on the North Shore, Henry meets the attractive Lucy Whitmore (Barrymore), who’s having breakfast alone. They are attracted to one another, but go their separate ways, planning to meet there the next day. But the next day, Lucy clearly has no idea at all who Henry is.

Sue (Amy Hill), the motherly Hawaiian who runs the café, explains Lucy’s behavior to Henry: a year before, she was in a car wreck with her father Marlin. He came out of it okay, but Lucy’s short-term memory was wiped out. Her long-term memory is fine up to the night of the accident, but on awakening, she thinks each day is still the day after the accident. It’s kind of “Groundhog Day” in reverse.
Marlin (Blake Clark) and Lucy’s brother Doug (Sean Astin, rather wasted) do their best to make each morning seem like the morning Lucy always thinks it is: they’ve printed what seems to be hundreds of copies of that day’s newspaper, for example. Also, on the real day, Lucy painted a spare room, so each night Marlin and Doug paint it white again.

Neither of them welcome Henry’s intrusion into their lives. Henry is nonplused himself – he’s never felt like this about a woman before, and he also sees her as a challenge. Every day, he tries to meet her again, for her the first time they’ve laid eyes on each other, for Henry another day of frustration. But he perseveres, often with the help of his Hawaiian beach-bum pal Ula (an unrecognizable Rob Schneider).

Gradually, things evolve as Henry wins the trust of the skeptical Marlin and Doug. But what kind of future is there in a relationship that starts every day from ground zero?

The screenplay by George Wing is inventive in providing Henry many ways of encountering Lucy for the first time again, and very adept in showing how all this changes Henry into a better person, without his even noticing. The conclusion of the movie is both completely logical and very unexpected. It’s not a surprise ending at all, but it is courageous and appropriate.

There are some bad things. It IS an Adam Sandler movie, after all. The question of whether Alexa is a man or a woman is pounded to death, and one can only admire Luisa Strus’ forbearance in having to go through this crap. Doug is hooked on steroids and works out way too much, and he lisps, but the script doesn’t provide him with anything resembling a personality, leaving Astin adrift. There’s also a pointless, useless gag about a female-to-male transsexual that even the Sandler fans in the preview audience didn’t react to.

Director Peter Segal has a flat, uninflected style, but his Sandler-starring “Anger Management” was a hit. He handles the gentler scenes better (and with more involvement) than he does the scattered slapstick comedy bits. The movie is very touching at times, and the ending is presented in a revelatory style that’s deeply engaging.

The combination of the great Jack Green’s eloquent cinematography and the expert sound mixing of David Bach place you there in the Islands, with a rich palette of colors and a broad spectrum of natural sounds. There are sunsets like big brass gongs. It’s relatively rare for movies to be both shot and set in Hawaii; most of the time, movies shot there are set someplace else entirely – Africa, South America, other islands. But “The Big Bounce” a couple of weeks ago and, especially, “50 First Dates” make great use of the scenery, and depict locals with a surprising degree of accuracy. Even Rob Schneider is so convincingly Hawaiian that I didn’t recognize Ula as Schneider at all. And Sandler wears an array of great aloha shirts.

Most of the supporting cast is unfamiliar, starting with a dour Blake Clark as Lucy’s father. Dan Aykroyd has a few moments, played absolutely straight, as the surgeon who operated on Lucy, and who has to tell Henry, Marlin and Doug that there’s no possibility of a cure.

The walruses and other sea creatures are amusing and well-trained, but I don’t think the movie needed a trained penguin, too. Also, Henry seems to duck out on his job so frequently it’s kind of surprising he still HAS a job. He seems to be independently wealthy; he’s restored an old sailing vessel which he longs to sail to the Arctic to research the underwater life of walruses. This is there to provide a force drawing him away from Lucy, but though it leads to an amusing, touching scene of Sandler singing the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” with tears streaming down his face, it feels somewhat artificial.

In Hollywood, there are rumors that Sandler is trying to increase the kinds of films he can do. For the first time since “The Wedding Singer,” he’s really done it. Sure, there are still some crude, obvious gags, but most of the movie is surprisingly, gratifyingly good.

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