50 First Dates
There is a dogged, not-to-be-denied quality to Adam Sandler that's both a curse and a blessing. It was a blessing in the brilliant "Punch-Drunk Love," Paul Thomas Anderson's surreal fantasy in which terminal blandness meets terminal rage, and Sandler's character seemed to be controlled by a simple on-off switch. It's a curse here in "50 First Dates," where Sandler's character, Henry Roth, needed a subtler, more nuanced performance than he is able to conjure up. And his narrow range is only made painfully visible by Drew Barrymore's finely textured work opposite him.
The story is a stretch, but it works as a kind of screwball tragicomedy. Henry is a terminal cocksman, a veterinarian at an Oahu Sea-World-type attraction, who spends his free time seducing women who come to Hawaii on vacation, then running from them when they have to go home. Until one morning at a back-country diner when he meets Lucy Whitmore, played by Barrymore at her most winsome. He's smitten, but discovers the next morning at the diner that she's forgotten him. He learns that a year ago she suffered a trauma to her cortex that destroyed her short-term memory, so that whatever she experiences during the day is wiped out at night; she's been reliving the day before the accident ever since. And she's been helped in her amnesia by her father Marlin (Blake Clark) and steroid-fueled brother Doug (Sean Astin in a delicious performance built on the moves and speech impediments of a weight-lifter wannabe). They give her the same day's paper every morning, they watch the same Vikings football game (on tape) every afternoon, and see "The Sixth Sense" every evening. "I had no idea Bruce Willis was a ghost!" she says, every night.
Henry falls in love with her, and tries in every way possible to find a way into her memory - in a lovely sequence he makes a video about her and plays it for her every morning. He wants to marry her, but she has problems thinking of marriage to a man she only met that morning. As the film goes on we wonder how writer George Wing and director Peter Segal will find a solution to the conundrum. Let me just say that they do find one, and it's the right one.
The film is lovely whenever Barrymore is on screen, and Sandler has an open, everyman look and voice that work for the most part; it's just that someone with more range would have deepened both the comedy and the underlying sadness. In fact one of the best things about "50 First Dates" is that it doesn't run from the tragedy of a life lived without a future. Barrymore, particularly, embodies that haunting condition with grace and wit. We can all fall in love with her again, every single day.