It's hard to believe that the sweetest Valentine's Day-type romantic comedy in years should open with a giant walrus projectile-vomiting into the face of a Slavic aquarium worker of comically indeterminate gender. But the first 15 minutes of 50 First Dates (Columbia Pictures) are gross—gross in the lazy, reflexive way that passes for comedy in an age in which teenage boys (and teenage boys at heart) hold the key to a movie's performance in the marketplace. I like bad-taste humor more than most people my age (way more, actually), but the slovenliness of these gags had me reaching for my coat: I thought, "No more jokes about walrus penises, no more penguins making rude gestures, no more Rob Schneider as a half-naked Hawaiian guy with some kind of dead eye. No more Adam Sandler walking through a movie to collect his 20-plus million." I knew the premise: Sandler falls in love with a woman (Drew Barrymore) with no short-term memory, so that he has to win her over "every friggin' day." And the whole thing seemed so horribly exploitive, suddenly. Bleah.
Then something weird happened: The movie got really, really good.
Barrymore had a lot to do with its recovery. In 50 First Dates, she plays Lucy Whitmore, a warm and quick-witted art teacher who Sandler spies in a cafe, making a castle out of her waffles. He plays Henry Roth—not the writer but an arctic marine veterinarian marking time in Hawaii, where he likes to seduce single-women tourists and then blow them off with a cockamamie story. He's not a jerk about it, though: He wants them to keep their golden memories. The fact that Lucy is a local makes him nervous, but there's something about her he can't shake. They make a date for breakfast the next day, then catch each other, in the parking lot, doing identical dances of joy.
You know from the previews that when Henry shows up the next day, she doesn't have a clue who he is: She tries to have him arrested. That's when he learns that she had a car accident that injured the part of the brain that holds new memories. She's fine with everything up to the accident, on her dad's birthday, but every morning she wakes up and the previous day's slate has been wiped clean. It's her dad's birthday again—and again.
This is all sad and creepy for a gross-out comedy, but the script, by George Wing, quickly changes gears. We meet Lucy's dad (Blake Clark) and brother (Sean Astin), who not only try to protect her from operators like Henry but from all knowledge of her own condition. The sequence that restarts the movie doesn't feature Sandler's Henry: It's the father and brother repeating the day they've repeated a hundred times before: the same birthday cake and video (The Sixth Sense, which they have to be surprised by all over again), the same routine of letting Lucy paint big, colorful flowers on the wall of her dad's workshop. Then they say good night and, while she sleeps, carry in buckets of white latex and cover her day's work over. It's a miraculous episode: funny and heartbreaking in equal measure.
My hunch is that Wing's original script didn't have a lot of walrus-barf jokes, but Sandler knows his base: He remembers that the fans who flocked to garbage like Mr. Deeds and AngerManagement were outraged by that lyrical absurdist romance Punch Drunk Love. So, there's lots of slapstick in the margins of every scene—lots of cuts to Lusia Strus, made to look even more androgynous than Julia Sweeney's Pat, and lots of gags that revolve around Astin flexing his glutes in a hopeless quest to become a bodybuilder. But through it all, 50 First Dates stays bravely true to its unresolvable premise. Henry keeps coming back, with no triumph lasting more than a few short hours. Will Lucy's love for him eventually take root? When she learns of her condition (not for the first time), she gives him advice on how to win her the next day: Bring lilies. She says she can't believe she regularly falls for a guy with an egg-shaped head.
That egg-shaped head is a little bigger these days: There's something regally entitled about Sandler's manner. The good part of this is that he's rarely in your face (he doesn't need to make every joke kill), and the warmth of his lazy delivery sneaks up on you. Over the years, he has developed his own agreeable stock company. Steve Buscemi isn't in this one, but the croaky bit player Blake Clark gives a breakthrough performance as Lucy's dad; Sean Astin makes the leap from the Shire with a fuddled and funny turn; and Dan Aykroyd has a touching scene as a brain doctor who taps Lucy's head and quips that her all-important sense-of-humor region is unimpaired. The camera lingers on all the bit players, giving them each a moment to shine. Even Rob Schneider is—
No, maybe not. Never mind.
50 First Dates belongs to Barrymore. I'd soured on her after last summer's nightmarish Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (a real career-killer), but in a couple of seconds my memory of that debacle had been wiped clean. It's strange to think of her as coming from such a royal theatrical family: Part of her charm is a kind of inspired amateurishness. She has a melting sweetness that makes everything she does—even when, in this film, she has done it over and over—seem believably new. As in The Wedding Singer, she brings out the tenderness in Sandler's aggressive comedy stylings. And she brings out the tenderness in the audience that goes for those aggressive comedy stylings, too.
There's a larger Valentine's Day theme buried in 50 First Dates. Again and again, Lucy is wooed and won; and again and again she says, "There's nothing like a first kiss." (The movie's first and better title was 50 First Kisses.) Wing and director Peter Segal and Sandler and Barrymore have built a comedy around the thrill of first attraction, the sadness that comes from knowing it can't last, and the challenge of finding something in the heart to hang onto.