Henry Roth (Adam Sandler, disarmingly confident) is a marine biologist working at a Hawaiian Sea World-type park, and enjoys his nights picking up female tourists for vacation flings that never last past the morning. Stopping by a local eatery for a breakfast of Spam and eggs (one of many Hawaiian jokes to be had), Henry spies Lucy (Drew Barrymore, looking Pacific Rim delicious) alone in her booth, making a castle out of her waffles. Striking up a conversation with her, Henry and Lucy hit it off right away, making plans to meet again the next morning. When the next day comes, Lucy has no recollection of Henry, and he learns the awful truth: due to an accident, Lucy suffers from short term memory loss, which the locals (a sweet Amy Hill) and her family (including Blake Clark and Sean Astin) help her deal with by recreating the same day over and over. To Henry, Lucy is worth the battle, and he attempts to try and woo her differently every day, hoping that one day she’ll remember him and fall in love.
Last year’s smash “Anger Management” brought Adam Sandler to a crossroads in his career. On one side was the lovable doofus of cult hits “Happy Gilmore” and “The Wedding Singer,” and on the other, the burgeoning dramatic actor of the seamless 2002 odyssey, “Punch Drunk Love.” “Management” tried to strengthen Sandler’s relationship with an audience outside of his hardcore fan base by pairing him up with “instant credibility” Jack Nicholson, and removing his usual writer (the great Tim Herlihy) and directors. “50 First Dates” is similar to “Management” in that it has the silky sheen of a Sandler film ready for mass consumption, lacking the absurd quirks his features used to pride themselves on. But I’m happy to report that the Sandler of old pops up with more regularity in this film, and creates a delightful, tender, hilarious picture in “Dates.”
Reteaming with “Management” director Peter Segal, “Dates” won’t win any awards for originality nor will it bring in new fans to the Sandler rodeo. It’s pretty much what baseball players refer to as an “easy out,” and doesn‘t play solely to one side of the room. “Dates” is more romantic comedy, recalling the sweet, gooey “Wedding Singer” right away with its slight rehash of scenes and passivity of the standard Sandler goofballisms. Sandler and Drew Barrymore have a very real and engaging chemistry, and thank God Sandler was smart enough to rope her into another film. They work well together, elevating the film away from Segal’s shameless cutaways to sea creatures blowing kisses and breathtaking Hawaiian scenery (you just can‘t go wrong with that). Segal is a comedy hack, but he knows when to keep the action tight on Sandler and Barrymore and just let them run with it.
Adam Sandler all loose and ready for comedy again is a welcome sight. It takes a little bit of straining to see Sandler as an island Casanova, but he wins hearts with his tender courtship of the forgetful Lucy. The actor has equal chemistry with the sea world inhabitants as well, making for some very funny scenes with Henry’s walrus and penguin pals. To keep the fans interested, Sandler even throws in some references to “Happy Gilmore” and “Tommy Boy” to boot. Sandler does his best work as a straight man, but “Management” buried him too far under the rest of the actors and the atypical writing. “Dates” returns Sandler to his place at the top of the pyramid, and it’s great to belly-laugh at, as well as with, him again.
What isn’t expected is some serious scene stealing from Rob Schneider and Sean Astin. Schneider, playing Henry’s island native friend Ula, gets monster laughs playing up a Hawaiian caricature, as well as being the main naysayer for Henry to pursue a fulltime romance. I know people loathe Schneider, but in “Dates,” he’s a genuinely welcome presence, believe me. In addition, the former Samwise Gamgee has a ball as the ’roided up brother of Lucy, who has a problem with nocturnal emissions and a pesky lisp. Astin is a riot just standing there in tight bike shorts and a see-through t-shirt, erasing all those memories of a doughy actor, slogging through Middle-Earth looking for a ring of some sorts.
“50 First Dates” isn’t a total game of Candyland. The picture does get bizarrely dramatic when it comes within striking distance of addressing Lucy’s illness, and the dips into sentimentality can be a little overwhelming. However, the film is a romantic comedy first and foremost, and it works like the well oiled wheel it’s supposed to be. For those who lost some faith in Sandler last year, this is the film that will restore it.Rating: A-