'First Dates': Good Flick, Bad Shtick

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2004

Until a few years ago, it was easy to pigeonhole Adam Sandler's performances into one of two categories: obnoxious and slightly less obnoxious.

But then he met the director Paul Thomas Anderson and starred in "Punch-Drunk Love," a wry, slightly bent romantic comedy in which Sandler exhibited heretofore unexpressed subtlety and range.

Wisps of that persona occasionally float through "50 First Dates," a slapstick romance in which he plays a marine-life veterinarian living in Hawaii, who falls in love with a woman suffering from a brain injury that has destroyed her short-term memory.

Make no mistake, "50 First Dates" is an Adam Sandler movie, with all the broad physical comedy, crude humor and lack of technical finesse the genre implies. But even mired within Sandler's tastelessness and self-regard, a certain sweetness manages to seep through, like a vein of sweet water weakly bubbling up out of a swamp.

The premise of "50 First Dates," of course, is derived unapologetically from "Groundhog Day." That's no disgrace; one of the cardinal rules of show business is to steal from the best, and "Groundhog Day" is one of the all-time greats, an ingeniously conceived classic that featured an unforgettable performance by Bill Murray as a man doomed to relive the same day over and over again.

In "50 First Dates" Lucy, played by Drew Barrymore, lives each day as if it were the Sunday she got into a car accident with her father: She wears the same clothes, eats the same breakfast at the same place, cooks her dad the same birthday dinner. One of the movie's most unexpectedly touching sequences shows how Lucy's father (played with gruff pathos by Blake Clark) and brother (Sean Astin, affecting a Mike Tyson lisp) spend every night preparing for the next day, whitewashing walls that Lucy painted, plucking a Sunday paper from the stack they've had printed up, washing the same pink T-shirt.

When Henry Roth (Sandler) meets Lucy, he upsets the routine, and after some set pieces involving the couple meeting over and over, "50 First Dates" concerns itself with how Henry will help Lucy manage her disorder, rather than deny it the way her family has helped her to do. It's not a bad idea for a movie, and in other hands "50 First Dates" could have been something of a modern classic, à la "Groundhog Day," as a bittersweet meditation on renewing passion and emotional commitment.

But "50 First Dates" is in Sandler's hands, meaning that it bears the worst of his signature slapstick tropes and a co-starring role for the execrable Rob Schneider, here playing a pot-smoking islander with a clouded-over left eye. Barrymore, who co-produced the picture with Sandler, spends most of the time looking attractively blank until she's forced to act, which is never a great idea. What's more, a potentially simple and charming story has been loaded down with lots of cheap audience-pleasing sops, from Lucy's lovable quirks (she likes to make tepees and log cabins out of her breakfast waffles) to countless cutaway shots of penguins, dolphins and other beguiling sea creatures.

Still, with all the walrus vomit and the wet-fish slaps; with the jokes about sexual identity and smelling people's fingers; with the stock takes of an elderly man spouting profanities and other characters delivering rude gestures, "50 First Dates" possesses an undeniable heart. The bad news is that it will still be buried underneath layers of stale Sandlerisms tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

50 First Dates (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for crude sexual humor and drug references.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company