'Dates' unsure of its identity

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Special to the Journal-World

Adam Sandler stars as a frustrated suitor in "50 First Dates."

Adam Sandler is at war with his image and his audience in "50 First Dates."

He stars in a fundamentally sweet romantic comedy that feels like it has been hastily Sandlerized to appeal to his legion of lunkheaded fans.

There are moments the actor conjures the easygoing charisma he exhibited so impressively in "Punch-Drunk Love," but then they're evened out by typical Sandler images that could have been ripped from "The Waterboy" or "Mr. Deeds." These hallmarks include repeated beatings, shots to the groin, bodily fluids, characters with speech impediments and Rob Schneider.

These things by themselves aren't the problem -- there's always some pretty funny stuff even in Sandler's worst movies -- but it's the fact that they seem completely incongruous to what is at its core a gripping love story.

In the film, the comedian portrays Henry Roth, a veterinarian who takes care of the exotic sea creatures at a theme park in Hawaii. He's also made a career out of romancing female tourists and then finding bogus excuses for why he can never see them again.

One day he spots Lucy (Drew Barrymore) at a diner playing with her waffles and they have a conversation that instantly clicks. They're both elated about the opportunity to see each other the next day. Problem is, when Henry returns to the place, Lucy doesn't recognize him.

In "Memento"-like fashion, Lucy suffered head trauma due to a car accident. She retains all her long-term memory, but her short-term memory causes her to erase all recollection of that day's event. Her father (Blake Clark) and brother (Sean Astin) have been convincing her for more than a year that each morning is a Sunday in October.

It's like "Groundhog Day" where she is doomed to forever repeat herself, only she doesn't know it.

Obviously, this presents a problem in terms of courtship for Henry and Lucy.

As he laments, "Anything with Lucy is a one-night stand."

Movie

50 First Dates ** 1/2

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Adam Sandler plays a man trying to woo a girl (Drew Barrymore) whose recent head injury affects her short-term memory, causing her to forget the events of each new day. While the central romance is genuinely sweet, the rest of the film has been incongruously Sandlerized with gross-out humor and dopey oddball characters.

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Rookie writer George Wing and "Anger Management" director Peter Segal concoct a wonderful premise, drape it in a lush Hawaiian setting, then populate it with characters and sight gags that often don't match up.

Fellow "Saturday Night Live" alum Schneider plays a profane confidant of Sandler's. He's a glass-eyed wild man -- supposedly a native Hawaiian no less -- whose zany caricature belongs in some other movie ... like maybe a Rob Schneider movie.

Similarly, Lusia Strus portrays a gender-bending co-worker whose big scene involves being engulfed in walrus vomit. Equally weird is the lisping, steroid-obsessed Astin in a role that just seems impertinent after his fine work in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Nor does Sandler's back story make any sense. He is first introduced during a montage in which dozens of women talk about this amazing guy they just spent the week with ... right before he dumps them. Sandler could have been charming enough as a mild-mannered vet, rather than trying to initially depict him as some Warren Beatty-type lothario.

Does that characterization truly fit his persona or physical attributes? Hardly.

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Special to the Journal-World

Rob Schneider, left, and Adam Sandler exchange advice in the romantic comedy "50 First Dates."

The relationship between Sandler and Barrymore is sufficiently compelling without resorting to these over-the-top distractions. The pair hooked up previously in 1998's "The Wedding Singer" -- one of the comedian's best efforts -- and they share a deep affection that is tangible on screen.

Her affliction isn't just played for laughs; it's genuinely sad. The sheer burden it represents for her family and for a boyfriend is exhausting. The fact that Sandler's character is willing to put up with dozens of first dates or dozens of rejections makes him a rather admirable guy by the end of the film.

And regarding the finale, "50 First Dates" doesn't cop out with anything as ridiculous as a miracle cure. How the relationship resolves is thematically true to these characters. The poignant final image is simply perfect.

This could have been one of the great "date movies." But only those hopeless romantics who are dating a stoned frat guy will be completely satisfied with this patchwork picture.

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