50 First Dates opens with a walrus vomiting all over someone, and I thought, oh no, here we go again. But that was pretty much it for gross-out humor. Instead, the movie settles into a surprisingly romantic groove for an Adam Sandler comedy. He's tried this before, of course -- most successfully in Punch-Drunk Love, which wasn't an Adam Sandler comedy so much as a Paul Thomas Anderson comedy starring Adam Sandler. But Sandler appears to have learned a thing or two about acting from working with Anderson, and he's developing this every-guy appeal that a woman (as opposed to a 13-year-old boy, his usual target audience) might actually respond to. In 50 First Dates, he plays a guy who must get the woman he's fallen in love with to fall in love with him all over again every single day, due to her short-term memory problems. It's an invigorating, exhausting, rewarding, punishing ordeal, and -- something that doesn't happen all that often with Sandler -- our hearts go out to him.
So does Drew Barrymore's, day after day, except on those days when it doesn't. Her father and brother, played by Blake Clark and Sean Astin, stage an elaborate ruse on a daily basis to convince her nothing's changed. And Sandler's appearance on the scene could screw that up. Barrymore and Sandler worked together in The Wedding Singer, where sparks failed to fly. But the undercurrent of sadness that runs through 50 First Dates gives some emotional heft to Barrymore's usual all-glow performance. First-time scriptwriter George Wing has obviously seen Groundhog Day a few times, outlining the convoluted plot on a blackboard. But he's also worked some changes on the yesterday-today formula. The movie's set in Hawaii, so the clouds of sadness keep dissipating in bright sunshine. And there's a motley crew of comic sidekicks, including Astin as a little bundle of muscle mania. But Sandler's the big surprise. Funny, charming, moving -- it's like seeing him for the first time.