There’s the pineapple, metaphoric of her brain, which gets damaged.
— Drew Barrymore, commentary track, 50 First Dates
Sounds kind of fruity.
— Doug (Sean Astin), 50 First Dates
“Here’s your first shot in the movie,” says director Peter Segal to his fellow commentary track-maker (not to mention producer and star), Drew Barrymore. “I have to say, ‘Yay!’ You were gorgeous.” They’re watching 50 First Dates, laughing over how delightful it was to shoot in Hawaii, with people they just loved-loved-loved and a gigantic, well-mannered walrus. While it’s surely heartening to learn about their pleasurable experiences, the commentary is more compelling when they discuss what was hard, namely, how they thought about making sense of a film so potentially “spastic.” That is, a film that leaps from broad comedy to poignant melodrama within seconds.
“The original script was quite dramatic,” says Barrymore. “And we wanted to add that comedy and levity into it so that it could be a true romantic comedy, and not just drama. And the tone is a very hard thing to bridge in this film, to have broad comedy and a lot of jokes, but to have this hard to swallow, tough story of someone who really is… it’s a condition that she has to overcome and everyone around her has to overcome.”
And yet, 50 First Dates is much like any other Adam Sandler film (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 Kevin James, who appears in a cameo declaration), all testifying as to how magnificent 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 penis 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, steroid-popping, over-worked-out 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.
While the film actually makes imaginative sense of its dilemma (relying, as it should, on the generous and sunny sensibility Barrymore can’t help but bring), the DVD’s featurettes are quite less original. They include a 20-minute behind the scenes documentary, “The Dating Scene” (taking the utterly routine “how much fun we had shooting” approach; Drew gushes, “Adam is always laughing, he is always kind and nice”); “Talkin’ Pidgin,” five minutes about local slang (“What it is, it’s like a broken down English form, all the different dialects came together to form its own language”) and Rob Schneider’s annoying adaptation of same (“Bum-bye,” that is, “Later”). Other extras The extras include Comedy Central’s “Reel Comedy,” a promotional half-hour hosted by Ula (Rob Schneider’s character), pretending to visit with Sandler and Barrymore; a blooper reel (fun for Sandler fans); and five deleted scenes that are just as well deleted.
“I love this scene,” says Barrymore, while watching one of the film’s more romantic moments, as Lucy asks Henry if he loves her for her video camera, a declaration to be preserved for her rediscovery the next morning. “Because it’s like the whole world falls away.” The film does work best in these isolated, sweet moments, set apart from the predictable fart and schlong jokes. As 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.
This is the one oddly great idea he has, to make a videotape for Lucy to watch every morning, and it is both discerning 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. 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.
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. And she’s irresistible.