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Dustin Putman

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50 First Dates (2004)
2 Stars

Directed by Peter Segal
Cast: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Rob Schneider, Sean Astin, Blake Clark, Lusia Strus, Amy Hill, Dan Aykroyd, Allen Covert, Joe Nakashima, Missi Pyle, Maya Rudolph, Kevin James
2004 – 99 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for crude sexual humor and drug references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 14, 2004.

1998's Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore match-up, "The Wedding Singer," was such a simple and pure motion picture—one of the most entertaining, warmhearted romantic comedies of the last decade or so—that recapturing the same magic a second time feels like an impossibly high standard to set. Indeed, "50 First Dates," which contains a completely different premise but also occasionally steals individual moments and scenes from that six-year-old modern classic in an attempt to satisfy fans, is nowhere near as good as "The Wedding Singer." In comparison, it comes off as something of a pale imitation, not as impeccable in its mixture of romance and comedy, not as cleanly cut in its editing and writing. For reasons unknown, the '80s-heavy pop soundtrack (another similarity with the aforementioned feature) overflows with inferior, borderline-distracting cover versions (a difference), none of which hold a candle to their original recordings.

And yet, on its own and taking into account its flaws, "50 First Dates" is sweet and sincere and even a little poignant. The plot, one that could have been nothing more than an easy gimmick, is handled by director Peter Segal (2003's "Anger Management") with an adept believability. Best of all, he does not condescend to the audience in a cheap ploy for a happy ending, but finds one, nonetheless, that is unexpected and rather lovely.

Henry Roth (Adam Sandler) is a commitment-shy veterinarian living in Hawaii whose life is filled with one night stands with tourists. His outlook suddenly changes after a chance meeting at a coffee shop with Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore), a beautiful, young art teacher. They share an instant bond with one another, but it ultimately ends before it can begin when Henry goes to meet her the next day and she has no recollection of ever meeting him. Protective waitress Sue (Amy Hill) fills him in. One year ago, Lucy was involved in a car accident that left her with no short term memory—every morning when she wakes up, she cannot remember the day before, or any other day since the accident. In an attempt to conceal the truth from Lucy, her loving father (Blake Clark) and steroids-abusing brother (Sean Astin) allow her to repeat the same day over and over. At first, Henry sees this as nothing more than a chance to be creative and try to make her fall in love with him differently each morning, but as his own love for Lucy grows he realizes that she deserves to know the truth about her condition.

The hook of "50 First Dates"—that Lucy will never remember Henry for longer than a 24-hour period—may embellish the details of a real-life short term memory disorder, but screenwriter George Wing treats it seriously and without any level of mawkish pity. It is a creative idea, a sort of reverse "Groundhog Day" where the day always changes but the person's use of it doesn't. Unfortunately, the hook also hinders "50 First Dates" in that the relationship between Henry and Lucy never evolves as smoothly and plausibly as it should because one of the romantic parties has to start from scratch each day. In effect, "50 First Dates" works better as a love story than it does as a romance. As a viewer, it is easy to see why Henry would love Lucy so much—she is a good, real person with zero pretensions and a veritable charm—and his escalating devotion to her is understandable, if not particularly within the realms of what his character is developed as being capable of. On the other hand, the romantic interludes are not quite plentiful enough to build full momentum. One scene in which Henry serenades Lucy with a song he wrote called "Forgetful Lucy" might have been more effective had it not been already done—and better—in "The Wedding Singer."

Where "50 First Dates" proves its worth is in the chemistry between Adam Sandler (2002's "Punch-Drunk Love") and Drew Barrymore (2003's "Duplex"), who are one of the most note-perfect romantic couples in movie history. They had that certain something in "The Wedding Singer" that made your heart want to sing, and they have it again here. As Henry, Sandler trades the edgy attitude and anger issues that plague most of his characters for someone gentler and less outspoken. There are still token "Sandler Moments," to be sure, but they are less apparent than usual and work within the confines of the story. As Lucy, Drew Barrymore is more than up to the challenge of creating a character who must consistently repeat the same kinds of feelings over and over, yet make them fresh and emotionally resounding each time. She is a treat to watch, and handles both her comedic and dramatic scenes with just the right amount of fun and pathos.

Fine support comes in the form of Blake Clark (2003's "Intolerable Cruelty") and Sean Astin (2003's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"), alternately tender and funny as Lucy's father and brother, who are forced to watch "The Sixth Sense" night after night with Lucy and pretend they are learning the twist ending for the first time; Amy Hill (2003's "The Cat in the Hat"), genial as the cafe waitress who holds a soft spot of Lucy; and the outrageous Lusia Strus (1999's "Stir of Echoes"), hilarious and memorable as Henry's oddball, androgynous assistant, Alexa. The weak spot falls on the shoulders of Rob Schneider (2002's "The Hot Chick"), a usually strong comedic presence who falls flat as Ula, Henry's pothead friend.

As "50 First Dates" approaches its finale, one is forced to wonder exactly how director Peter Segal will be able to end it in a truthful manner without disappointing the core audience. Without giving anything away, his wise solution to this matter allows the film to rise above mediocrity and garner a last-minute depth and beauty. As a whole, "50 First Dates" is a good movie, and not the great one that "The Wedding Singer" was. There are rough edges and a few clumsily realized moments, but then again, not just any film could come close to matching what "The Wedding Singer" achieved at such an incendiary level. What "50 First Dates" does achieve is make its viewers hope that there will be many more future pair-ups with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. What they share together on film is most certainly no flash in the pan.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman