Just as the population is split between Republicans and Democrats, Coke and Pepsi drinkers and SUV lovers and haters, so is it apparently divided over the appeal of Adam Sandler. The comic actor’s latest, “50 First Dates,” offers nothing to alter the situation; the unconverted will find no reason to change their minds, while those who took a shine to his previous romantic outing with Drew Barrymore, “The Wedding Singer,” will turn out to make this a roughly equal-sized hit, beginning with a big Valentine’s Day weekend opening.
The premise of first-timer George Wing’s screenplay, in which a brain-damaged young woman wakes up every morning unable to remember what happened to her the day before, thereby requiring her ardent suitor to continually win her over afresh, seems potentially catchy on paper. But that’s different from actually having to watch Sandler invent ever more extreme methods of attracting Barrymore’s favorable attention, ad infinitum, while trying to figure out a way to make her remember him.
In the end, there is something mildly beguiling about the spectacle of a lifelong commitment-phobe single-mindedly extending the limits of his imagination to break down this woman’s rather unique barrier. But much of this interest stems from the alliance he eventually forges with her father. Initially hostile to the eager fellow’s annoying persistence, the ex-sailor and fisherman is played in a completely disarming turn by Blake Clark, whose imposing physicality, foghorn voice, withering glances and deep-down likability conjure up an unlikely but winning combination of John Wayne and William Demarest. Let’s see more of this guy.
In fact, the entire supporting cast is continually threatening to take over the movie, and this is not entirely a good thing. On the one hand, Sean Astin wrings a string of laughs out of his resourceful clowning as Barrymore’s younger brother, a short, overcompensating muscleman who’s addicted to steroids and speaks with a lisp.
On the other, Sandler cohort Rob Schneider hams it up as a paunchy middle-aged Hawaiian stoner in an eyebrow-raising ethnic caricature that more than once calls to mind Mickey Rooney’s unfortunate Japanese turn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
In the middle are Lusia Strus’ campy pranks as Sandler’s sex-starved sea-park assistant of unknown gender affiliation, and aquatic creatures that perform cutely on cue but seem dragged in on a “when in doubt, cut to the penguin” basis. Pic features as many reaction shots of animals as an “Our Gang” comedy.
Unavoidably, however, it all comes back around to Sandler, whose Sea Life Park vet Henry Roth is presented in the opening reel as God’s gift to scrumptious female tourists who don’t want to leave Hawaii without having had a real good time. He breaks his own rule by becoming smitten with a local, Lucy Whitmore (Barrymore), whom he chats up in a beachside diner and who falls for him because he smells like fish.
The next day, however, Lucy hasn’t the slightest idea who this overly familiar guy is, and the reason why is quickly explained: The year before, she was injured in a car crash that wiped out her short-term memory. Her father and brother coddle her to protect her from the pain of reliving the accident.
At first, Henry tries a succession of new come-ons at the diner, all of which fail. In pic’s most excruciating section, he attempts to catch her eye as she drives by on a remote road. But once he wises up to her condition, he goes for less antic solutions, finally making a genuine effort to push her through her quandary and, ultimately, make her fall in love with him every day.
Story’s concept possesses the worthwhile central kernel that, once you win someone’s love, you shouldn’t take it for granted but should continue to nurture and merit it. Under the direction of Peter Segal (“Anger Management”), however, pic’s explicit sentiments more often sound like sappy greeting-card lines, promoting such ideas as, “Nothing beats a first kiss,” something the lead couple can experience every day.
Sandler and Barrymore interact easily together, and they make their characters’ neuroses, problems and hang-ups dovetail properly, at least on the story’s terms. But vast majority of the humor is so grotesquely obvious and crudely presented (in addition to being mildly crude in and of itself) that Sandler dissenters are guaranteed to remain just where they are.