- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Adam Sandler may be infantile on screen, but he’s mature enough to know his shtick needs a helping hand for the ladies’ sake.

Enter Drew Barrymore, a similarly childlike force, but one trapped in a woman’s body. Their 1998 film “The Wedding Singer” recast Mr. Sandler as an unlikely romantic foil, melting the resistance of even his harshest critics.

The pair reunites in “50 First Dates,” a shrewdly packaged romance that clicks despite Mr. Sandler’s pathological need for profanity and lumpy slapstick.

Once again, the union trumps the fragile concept, “borrowed” from 1993’s “Groundhog Day.” It doesn’t hurt that first-time scribe George Wing contributes a few witty scenes between lowest-common-denominator set pieces.

The actors’ comic rhythms, however overrated individually, blend to make them a winning on-screen item, sort of a Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan for the arrested-development set.

Hawaiian resident Henry Roth (Mr. Sandler) is an ambivalent Lothario, loving and leaving tourists because, long ago, a woman broke his heart, and he can’t risk getting banged up like that again.

Along comes Lucy (Miss Barrymore), who is making a volcano sculpture out of waffle wedges when he spots her seated in a cozy diner.

Who wouldn’t fall in love at first sight?

Trouble is, Lucy is recovering from a car accident, which caused permanent brain damage. Her short-term memory has a shelf life of only 24 hours — whatever she does one day is completely forgotten the next morning.

Inexplicably, having to woo Lucy anew every day doesn’t chase Henry away. Nor does Lucy’s family, including a lisping, bodybuilding brother (Sean Astin) trying to protect his wounded sister.

Can true love survive perpetual amnesia?

That “50 First Dates” occasionally engages us can be attributed, in part, to its gorgeous, sun-splashed Hawaiian locales. Mr. Sandler’s signature flourishes, on the other hand, such as a vomiting walrus and foul-mouthed senior citizens, try our sympathies.

Director Pete Segal, who steered Mr. Sandler in last year’s buffoonish “Anger Management,” wisely keeps out of his stars’ way here. When the principals flirt, we shift a bit forward in our seats to pay closer attention.

It’s not his fault that regular Sandler player Rob Schneider has to get pummeled by an aluminum bat in one scene or that a sweet, impromptu dance the leads perform after their first date is drowned out by a throwaway vulgarity. That’s just Mr. Sandler playing to his base.

Mr. Sandler, as critic-proof as any working actor today, remains the sort of empty vessel who works best with a strong collaborator. Think indie director Paul Thomas Anderson (2002’s “Punch Drunk Love”) and Jack Nicholson (“Anger Management”).

It’s still depressing to think Mr. Sandler is our current crown prince of comedy, along with the infinitely more talented Jim Carrey.

At least we have Miss Barrymore to cushion the blow by elevating “50 First Dates” above the comic’s baser instincts.

**-1/2

WHAT: “50 First Dates”

RATING: PG:13 (Coarse language, mild sexuality and slapstick violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Peter Segal. Written by George Wing. Director of photography is Jack Green

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

WEB SITE: www.50firstdates.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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