There are genres of films: comedy, drama, horror, romantic comedy, etc. There are also subgenres: legal dramas, buddy comedies, monster horror as opposed to stalker horror or suspense. And then there is the genre that tailors a film to personality. Examples: the Tom Cruise romantic drama, the Jim Carrey comedy, the Kevin Costner speculatively historical Western epic, and in this case, the Adam Sandler comedy and the Drew Barrymore romance. What makes the Sandler/Barrymore combo interesting is the mix of Sandler's tart, broad comedy with Barrymore's natural sweetness and vulnerability. It mixed well in 1998's The Wedding Singer and it mixes well here in 50 First Dates. But that's chemistry. And movies require more than chemistry alone.
Sandler is Henry Roth, a marine biologist at a Hawaiian sea park. We first see him in the act of breaking up with a week-long fling just as she's about to board a plane home. Will they ever see each other again? No, because Harry insists he's a secret agent, soon to be incommunicado. He jumps on a passing jet-ski and vanishes from her life forever.
This scene follows a montage of lovely women (and one man) who relate to friends a wonderful, sexy man they met while vacationing in Hawaii. All seem to have gotten a different story as to why he can never see them again. He has commitment issues. Got it? Good -- because after the first 20 minutes, all of this establishing-character exposition is worthless. Harry's player-dom is never revisited, and Harry is never faced with the consequences of his fear of intimacy. Nor does he learn a lesson. You with me?
Next, Harry meets a lovely woman in a diner. She makes houses out of her waffles and she's pretty, so of course she inspires the interest of Harry. She's Lucy (Barrymore), an art teacher waiting until lunchtime when she and her father will ritually pick a pineapple on his birthday. Breakfast is nice, and the two agree to meet again the next morning for another breakfast. Harry shows up, but Lucy doesn't remember the day before. Lucy never remembers the day before because a car accident has wiped out her short-term memory. Her father Marlin (Blake Clark) and brother Doug (Sean Astin) meticulously reconstruct the circumstances of that next day (it's always Dad's birthday!) from her choice in clothing to reprints of that day's newspaper to rewrapping Lucy's birthday present. (It's a video of The Sixth Sense, and Dad and brother act surprised at the end every time.)
Harry finds a way of integrating himself into Lucy's life, starting his courtship over every day, gaining a little more insight, information, and success each day. Soon, he suspects that keeping Lucy in the dark is the wrong way to go, and he develops a video orientation for her that explains everything that happened the previous year. This works, and gradually Harry figures out how to reduce her freak-out time so that he'll have more of the day to woo her honestly. Imagine, going to bed with someone only to have no idea who they are when you wake up with them the next day. I hate it when that happens! (Just kidding, Mom. Even at my most incorrigible, I always have, at least, an inkling.)
The idea for this movie is more satisfying than the execution. But unlike other recent lame-o romantic comedies like Along Came Polly, this one starts poorly and actually gets better. Instead of being a genuine hybrid of the Sandler/Barrymore genre, 50 First Dates seems to start off Sandler and end up Barrymore. That's a good thing, because she does better films than he does. In this case, the movie starts off crass and gross and grows sweeter and more thoughtful as it progresses.
But like Polly, this film has no narrative or comedic compass. A smarter film would tie in Harry's commitment issues to Lucy's obviously parallel memory lapses. But 50 is schlock, employing not one but two gross sidekicks (Hawaiian hippie cad Rob Schneider and a lusty, vinegar-y androgyne played by Lusia Strus) along with a needlessly lisping Astin, deplorable reaction shots from marine life, the worst projectile vomiting this side of The Exorcist, and the least funny cameo (Dan Ackroyd) since Ted Danson in Saving Private Ryan. It's as though neither writer nor director trusted this to be a sweet fantasy and so have saddled it with limp slapstick to enliven the proceedings. By the satisfying end, however, a lot of the early rabble is forgiven, but not by much, and one wonders what this would have been like if it were a Drew Barrymore movie that only featured Adam Sandler. Oh well, maybe tomorrow...