This film review first appeared in the Australian Jewish News on March 26, 2004
Directed by Peter Segal
Written by George Wing
Starring Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Rob Schneider, Sean Astin & Dan Aykroyd
Adam Sandler’s new romantic comedy 50 First Dates will not beat on any Oscar doors, but carries unmistakable charm and lots of laugh-out-loud humour, albeit frequently of the adolescent kind. I am increasingly willing to forgive Adam Sandler many things, partly because he almost always insists that his characters are Jewish, no matter what the context. This time he plays Henry Roth, a Jewish veterinarian at a Hawaiian version of Sea World, and he appears to specialise in walruses.
Henry Roth has a problem: he’s a pretty romantic guy, but he is totally and completely incapable of emotional commitment in his relationships. The opening scene (don’t be late for this film or you will miss it) sets up Henry through the words of his many paramours. But something unexpected happens to Henry: he meets and falls in love with Lucy Whitmore, played by Drew Barrymore. In both The Wedding Singer and now here, Barrymore provides the best love interest Sandler has had on-screen. Sandler’s offbeat occasional grossity and Barrymore’s naive sweetness again meld to produce a truly engaging couple. We are not talking Hepburn and Tracy territory, but this is top-notch casting for what is intended to be a purely commercial comedy.
Lucy Whitmore has a problem, too, and it’s that she has lost her short-term memory after a car accident. The result is that she starts every day all over again, thinking that it is the day of her accident. Comedies about amnesia are not exactly in the best of taste, but no-one has ever accused Sandler of good taste. If you think you have worked out the set-up right from the beginning, you are more or less correct. The challenge for Henry is to make Lucy fall in love with him every day, again, and again, and again. To the credit of director Peter Segal (Anger Management) and writer George Wing, we believe them.
There will be inevitable comparisons with Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray was forced to re-live the same day in this life again and again in order to woo Angie MacDowell. Like Groundhog Day, the major character has an important lesson to learn – in Henry Roth’s case, that of sticking around and not running. The beauty of the script is that when you think it has little else to say, it comes up with just enough more.
There’s a heavy reliance on slapstick, much of it provided by Roth’s bizarre sidekick colleagues played by Rob Schneider and Lusia Strus, but there are also some hilarious sequences with Roth’s favourite walrus and penguin: some astonishingly well-trained animals. Sean Astin (the faithful hobbit in Lord of the Rings) plays Lucy ‘s camp brother and Dan Aykroyd plays a brain specialist. None of these characters are particularly well-drawn, but the film keeps coming up with funny surprises. The Hawaiian setting is unusual and very effective. Watch carefully for Sandler’s required Jewish bit and for the replicated rolling in the surf scene from the 1953 classic film From Here to Eternity (reportedly shot at the same location).
50 First Dates is cleverly constructed to cross a number of different audience demographics: twelve year-old boys will love the slapstick humour, and young adult couples on a date will find enough romantic relationship content to satisfy. It’s not as thoughtful as Groundhog Day, but it’s likely to be a big hit. Also note the final touching dedication to Sandler’s late father.