A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

50 FIRST DATES jj
Ĺ 

2004, PG-13, 96 mins.

Henry Roth: Adam Sandler / Lucy Whitmore: Drew Barrymore / Dr. Keats: Dan Aykroyd / Ula: Rob Schneider / Doug Whitmore: Sean Astin / Marlin Whitmore: Blake Clark

Directed by Peter Segal /  Written by George Wing

 

Adam Sandlerís new film 50 FIRST DATES is kinder, warmer, sweeter, and more gentle hearted than any of his previous work.

Thatís not necessarily a good thing, nor does it mean that itís a good film either. 

It's funny, but a considerable amount of mainstream critics out there who have trashed his work in the past are now heralding this new romantic comedy as the second coming of Sandler, doing away with his angst-ridden, angry, and emotional violent characters heís previously played.  Now he's playing a nice guy with an affectionate heart.  Yes, the film is not so deeply rooted in vileness and hostility as his previous films, like the moronically bad LITTLE NICKY, the unfunny BILLY MADISON, the hopelessly lame WEDDING SINGER, and the crude and vulgar HAPPY GILMORE.  Yet, 50 FIRST DATES just does not hold up well.

Okay, fine.  Sandler plays a nice guy in the film, but its also a film thatís hopelessly derivative, not really that funny, and has its premise rooted in something that is, letís be honest, kind of creepy, sinister, and morally wrong.  Consider:  If you met a woman that was cute like Drew Barrymore and was attracted to her, but later found out that she suffered from short term memory loss and could not make new memories, would you continue with your courtship of her or just get on with life?  Most sensible and realistic people would choose the latter, but not Sandler.  In the film he falls for the girl and even after doctors tell him that she has NO CHANCE of regaining the abilities to retain new memories, he continues his pursuit of her. 

She canít remember him everyday, nor would she remember a wedding, any children they might have, not to mention that she would be shocked to see a stranger in her bed every morning that she wakes up.  Obviously, youíd have to deal with her condition every morning, trying to engage in a hopelessly uphill battle to let her know that you both are a couple and that everything is normal.  Yeah, right.  Most people would have bailed and got on with life, but Sadlerís endless pursuit of this girl seems, well, a bit stalker-like and eerie.  For a man that could clearly have any woman on the Hawaii island he lives on (if you could believe that), why does he needlessly approach an otherwise sick woman who should be in a hospital or caring facility and not have someone cruelly trying to become her boyfriend?  Damned if I know. 

All right,  a film like this is meant to be a light-hearted and cute romantic comedy where you are definitely required to suspend your disbelief.  Yet, there is a fine line between doing that and actually finding the events in the film completely plausible, if not indirectly mean-spirited and selfish.  If Sandler really cared about the woman, why does he not send her to a hospital where she can get the necessary help and attention she needs?  Moreover, why doesnít the family of the girl do the same?  Instead, they wake up every morning and try to recreate the past day's events as to not upset some harmony in her life.  But what harmony?!  The girl canít remember anything!  She should be in a medical facility and not be used as an anchor for some flimsy romantic endeavor. 

50 FIRST DATES is not  a truly bad film.  I think its heart is in the right place (most of the time) but its head clearly is not.  Watching it I was constantly reminding myself of what an indirect rip-off it is of the superior 1993 Bill Murray film GROUNDHOG DAY.  In case you forgot that film, Murray essentially is forced (by what, we donít know) to relive the same day over and over and over again.  That film was funny, insightful, and darkly funny and realistic.  It also was daring to go to places that most cute comedies donít go.  At one point in that film, Murray even commits suicide (twice actually) because he canít deal with the burden.  Yet, he wakes up the next ďsameĒ morning fine.  His actions seem like the realistic side effect of being given the cursed deck of cards he was forced to play with. 

50 FIRST DATES, I think, tries to be like GROUNDHOG DAY, but wallows too deep into phony sentimentality and a conclusion that seems forced, rushed, and absolutely false.  I am not saying that Sadlerís character should have tried to commit suicide, mind you, but a realistic option on his part would have been to, well, just go on with his life.  Arenít relationships and marriage based on trust, respect, love, and cherished memories?  What are you left with when your partner canít remember any of those things? 

Sandler plays Henry Roth, a Hawaiian veterinarian who seems to have a lot of time on his hands outside of work to seduce women and tourists.  Funny, but if this is a nicer, cleaner Sandler, then how are we supposed to sympathize with the jerk that he is in the beginning?  Anyway, one day after his fishing boat has mechanical problems he goes to a nearby restaurant for breakfast (the kind run by overweight Hawaiian caricatures).  It is here where he meets Lucy (Drew Barrymore).  He seems instantly smitten with her, if the outrageously pretentious camera work and soundtrack did not give that away.  He walks over and eventually strikes up a polite conversation with her.  These moments in the film are nice and sweet, and Sadler does have a winning and mild-tempered disposition about him thatís kind of cheerful and honest.  The morning soon runs its course, and they agree to meet the next day for breakfast again.  24 hours later Henry shows up as does Lucy, but she, for some strange reason, does not recognize him at all.   

Henry is puzzled, but after a detailed explanation by the owner of the eatery, it is revealed that Lucy suffered an accident a year previous and suffers short-term memory loss as a result.  She remembers all of her old memories (conveniently, eh?) but canít make new ones (like meeting Henry).  Henry, for some odd reason, does not seem impeded by this overwhelmingly large obstacle, and gleefully tries, over and over again, day by day, to win her over.  This, of course, is made more difficult by Lucyís father (Blake Clark) and brother (the very funny post LORD OF THE RINGS Sean Astin).  The father seems to be the only voice of reason in the whole film, and politely, many times, tells Henry to forget about her and move on, seeing as a meaningful relationship canít possibly exist between the two (it really canít, if you think about it).  Henry, amazingly, still does not stop and tries with all of his efforts to woe the woman over, with mixed comic results. 

The film is clearly an effort to appease the comedy fans of Sandlerís, who were ambivalent and puzzled by his last film, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE (despite the fact that I liked Sadlerís willingness to do something bold and different, I still hated that film all the same as his previous crapfests).  More or less, the pairing of Sadler, director Peter Segal (who just directed Sadler in his previous disaster ANGER MANAGEMENT) and Barrymore is no coincidence at all.  Barrymore and Sandler being placed  together again seemed like a vain promotional stunt  to inspire fond memories of THE WEDDING SINGER in an effort to promote the film more successfully. 

50 FIRST DATES is much better than THE WEDDING SINGER (that film was silly and inane) but it's still remains predictable, gross at times (especially in a needless scene involving a walrus and lots of vomit), and is still very desperate for laughs.  Some jokes work very well, others seem way too obvious and telegraphed.  The most clear example of desperation is in the character of Sandlerís assistant, who seems so androgynous that itís hard to tell whether itís a man or a woman.  Címon, this seems as forced as it does hopelessly desperate.  The character is more creepy than funny.   

Sandler does what he can, more or less, with the film.  Sometimes his understated and self-mocking sense of humour works, as in one scene where he reveals to the forgetful Lucy that theyíve been dating for weeks.  ďSorry I am not better lookiní,Ē he deadpans back to her.  Barrymore also has a warmth and blossoming spirit as Lucy, but her performance never really makes you believe that she has a mental disorder.  Yet, both of them donít really have any chemistry and seem more like friends acting together in a film than a believable romantic couple. 

The funniest performance in the whole film is, surprisingly, by Sean Astin, who plays Lucyís brother who dreams of being Mr. Hawaii,  but was kicked out of the competition for steroid use.  When asked by a doctor if heís still on the juice, he responds, with his trademark lisp, ďIt'th not juithe. It'th a protein thake.Ē  I liked his performance as a funny and odd character that is in a state of constant tunnel vision about himself.  He juices up all the time, but fails to see the after effects.  After seeing him lounge around in dramas and fantasies, itís refreshing to see Astin have a wacky time playing a truly goofy character. 

The movie works on some its intended levels of being kind and gentle and feeding us a Sandler that is more likeable than obnoxious and completely annoying (see LITTLE NICKY).  The film also has some genuine laughs (in one funny moment when Lucy asks why Henry tried to cop a feel of her breast while kissing, he amusingly responds, ďAlright, I'm sorry... But this is like the 23rd time we've made out already and... and my hands are getting kind of blue.Ē)  Yet, the film fails and falls apart because I just could not buy into the characters or their story.  Yes, romantic comedies sometimes require to check your sensible brain at the door, but this film kind of kicked it out the door and onto the opposite end of the street.  Just when you think one scene dares to be different, as in a moment where Lucy (quite logically) tells Henry that she canít see him anymore because sheíll never remember him, the film plays it safe and builds to a conclusion that had me throw my hands in the air.  

Also, I found some of the comedy in the film slightly off-putting, especially in regards to people with mental disabilities.  Yes, I have praised the work of the Farrelly Brothers, whose work often includes characters with disabilities and mental handicaps.  The difference with them is that they never make fun of people with handicaps, nor do they use them as mere punch lines to jokes.  Their characters have dimension to them and often the humor is not targeted at  them but rather with  them.  In 50 FIRST DATES some scenes feel more like they use people with real disabilities to simple provide a moment of laughter.  One particular joke involving a man who only has a ten second memory span is not only used once, but twice.  The Farrellyís invest into their handicapped characters and seem to laugh with them, almost out of empathy and understanding (like in the very funny STUCK ON YOU).  Sandler and company, more or less, use them merely for jokes, with little invested in them. 

50 FIRST DATES may be Sandlerís best made comedy.  Thatís not saying much, seeing as I have never given a favorable review to any of his previous work.  He has warmness to him, and the film as a whole tries to be bittersweet and poignant, but it ultimately looses me in it's lack of logic towards the predicament of its characters.  Youíd figure that someone in Henryís circle of friends, after about the thirtieth day of him trying to hopelessly woe Lucy, would pull him aside and say, " Listen, dude...enough is enough.  Get over it and get on with it.Ē

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