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50 First Dates

Director: Peter Segal
Cast: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Sean Astin, Rob Schneider, Amy Hill, Dan Aykroyd, Pomaika'i Brown, Blake Clark

(Sony; US theatrical: 13 Feb 2004; 2004)

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You’d be hard pressed to come up with a more adorable movie star/producer/talk show guest than Drew Barrymore. She works her refreshing magic unfailingly, even when the product she’s pitching—say, the latest Adam Sandler movie, 50 First Dates—is distinctly unoriginal.


During her 10 February appearance on Letterman, for example, Barrymore charmed her host with an uncomfortably Lost in Translation-type story, that is, a story that should have been utterly un-charming. In Tokyo, she found herself assigned a butler named Ugo; though she resisted, being an “independent” sort, by week’s end Barrymore found herself calling her new best friend in the middle of the night to seek advice on what to eat and whether or not she should work out at the gym. Ever accommodating, Ugo encouraged good eating habits and escorted his charge from her room to the hotel gym—apparently at any hour Miss Movie Star asked. And on her departure, she said, just so endearingly, she cried. Dave laughed and loved her, especially when she was eager and grateful to stay on for the Jack Hanna segment: “Oh, I love animals!” She went so far as to agree to feed mealworms to a furry monkeylike creature in Hanna’s lap, so game that even when she was overcome by squealy horror and dropped a worm in Hanna’s chair, she remained strangely enchanting.


And by the way, that movie she’s in, 50 First Dates, sorely needs her singular charm.


Yet again, it’s like every other Adam Sandler project (that is, any other Happy Madison project, as Punch-Drunk Love remains the dazzling exception). It starts with Sandler (here named Henry Roth) making trouble and gallivanting (here in Hawaii, where he works as a veterinarian at an aquarium), then coming to some revelation (here inspired by Barrymore’s character, Lucy), which reveals just how morally upright the Sandler character has always been. At the same time, all around him, shady shenanigans and gross-out jokes abound, but none affects your sympathy for him.


Just so, Henry is introduced as something of a lothario, serially seducing and bedding women tourists (and apparently Kevin James, who appears in a cameo declaration), all testifying as to how wonderful and affectionate and wild this lover of a lifetime is. Following, the intercut snippets of testimony illustrate the seducees’ disappointment when they learn that this perfect specimen is “married,” “gay,” a CIA agent, or some other mark of unavailability. Still, they all sigh, to a one, he was the best they ever had.


It’s a moderately funny (if wholly predictable) joke, positing Sandler as the ultimate lover-man, so smooth that his exes sing his praises just moments after he dumps them. Henry is happy with his forever-single lot, as well with his work with a walrus, penguin, and mannish assistant Alexa (Lusia Strus), and his friendship with the belly-scratching, leering “Hawaiian” Ula (Rob Schneider), especially as all of these relationships feed his sense of brilliance. Ula lives “vicariously” through Henry’s sex stories, Alexa sets up gender-confusion jokes like SNL‘s Pat used to do, and the walrus allows for endless jokes about the second biggest “schlong” on earth.


Imagine Henry’s surprise when he actually falls for a local girl, Lucy, whom he meets at a breakfast spot run by Sue (Amy Hill) and her son Nick (Pomaika’i Brown). Commitment runs counter to his life-plan, which is premised on his feeling devastated by a college girlfriend who left him for a teacher—in other words, he has a very good and sad reason for behaving badly, so you don’t have to hate him, but can blame her. Hurt but carrying on, Henry is determined to study walruses and make his sailboat seaworthy, so he can live the undomesticated bachelor “lifestyle” ever after.


He’s thrown for a loop by Lucy, who is “different” in a particular way. Following a car accident a year ago, she now has no short-term memory, meaning that she wakes up every morning back in that morning of the car accident (read: Groundhog Day revisited, and much missing Bill Murray’s acidy smirk). As Ula points out, the condition makes Lucy the perfect match for Henry, in that he can seduce and leave her repeatedly, and she’ll never know. At the same time, she’s so guileless and smart and funny and beautiful, that Henry can’t help but actually fall in love with her and want to spend the rest of his life with her, to, uh, commit.


To even begin this crucial maturation process, Henry must convince Lucy’s protective fisherman father Marlin (Blake Clark) and awkwardly aggressive brother Doug (Sean Astin) to allow him to reintroduce himself to her every morning, and, as he puts it more than once, “get her to fall in love with” again and again. You see the repetition built into this structure.


Henry sets his sights on doing the right thing for this exquisite girl—who will always be a childish girl, never have agency, never be able to make an informed decision that she can count on lasting, and who will be surprised every day anew by his wonderfulness. The one oddly great idea he has—to make a videotape for Lucy to watch every morning—is both insightful and troubling. Reducing each day’s recent history, of the world and her own experience, to a few minutes of tv, the tape ensures that Lucy’s understanding will always be the one Henry devises (how Stepford Wifey). Every morning, she will be traumatized by the explanation that she had this terrible accident, that her life will never be “normal,” that she’s lost memories and relationships over the past 24 hours. It’s nearly a profound concept, but only nearly. Remember that 50 First Dates is an Adam Sandler movie: there are limits.


Right. While Henry mostly gets to look noble and nice in relation to his adoration of Lucy, seemingly unrelated obnoxiousness and stereotyping occur all around him: Alexa is covered with walrus vomit; lispy wannabe muscleman Doug acts out a bizarre “‘roid rage”; Nick threatens Henry’s life with a meat cleaver, eyes bulging and tribal tattoos rippling; Ula makes crude sex references, and in one scene, has his ass beaten by lovely Lucy, who has been set up by Henry to think Ula is beating him. This last scene, stupid as it is, provides a terrific moment for Barrymore, who roars after the escaping Ula, “Keep running!” just before she turns to Henry and beams brilliantly. Always in the present, she’s changed in an instant. She’s irresistible.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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