A first date that's forever

Be warned that although the Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore courtship film 50 First Dates announces itself as a romantic comedy, its humor is of the sort that might be found in a case study by neurologist Oliver Sacks. Call it The Babe Who Mistook Her Beau for a Stalker.

Sandler plays Henry Roth, a Honolulu marine veterinarian and speed dater. So he can avoid commitment, he romances only tourists visiting from the mainland.

Then he falls hard for Lucy Whitmore (Barrymore), maybe because she's the only gal on the islands with an even briefer relationship span. A head injury has impaired the baby-faced beauty's short-term memory. While she sleeps, all the events of the day are, in effect, erased from her consciousness.

So while Henry and Lucy have an enchanted first encounter, when they meet the following day she has no idea who the heck he is. For Mr. Love-'em-and-Leave-'em, Ms. Blank Slate poses a major romantic challenge. She is even harder to get than he is. But Henry truly, earnestly, desperately wants to win Lucy's love, even if he has to start from scratch every morning.

The film's premise owes more than a little to the far superior Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray's character relives Feb. 2 over and over again until he gets it right. But where that movie was a self-help fantasy about the struggle of an amoral man to become a better person, 50 First Dates is a romantic allegory about the repentance of a sexual opportunist chastened by neurological short-circuit. At the pounding heart of this anxious comedy nags the question: If the beloved has amnesia, is it really love?

This is not the kind of theme one typically finds in a comedy. Neither is the film's landscape, photographed by Clint Eastwood's favorite cameraman, Jack Green; it's the opposite of picturesque. Instead of the Hawaii of swaying palm trees, lapis waters, and pearly sands, Green shows the islands as jagged outcroppings reaching toward each other just as Henry reaches toward Lucy. Alas, Peter Segal's direction often is as choppy as the surf hammering the shore.

It is not too early in Sandler's improbable career to characterize his screen persona as that of an eccentric romantic. For whether he plays passive or aggressive (see Anger Management and Punch-Drunk Love), manic or depressive (see Mr. Deeds and The Wedding Singer), his specialty is the incomplete man searching for his other, better half.

While this aspect of Sandler appeals to the romantics in the audience, he does not disappoint his gross-out constituency in Henry's transactions with walruses, penguins, and his sidekick Ula, broadly (and hilariously) played by the stalwart Rob Schneider. Likewise Sean Astin is amusing as Doug, Lucy's lisping, steroid-addicted brother.

But the film's standout performance is Barrymore's Lucy, a human sun radiant in flirtation if clouded by the daily news of her limitations. Barrymore plays the part with grief-tinged grace, striking the serious chords of the story as Sandler strums the playful ones. I don't think 50 First Dates is a great movie, or a particularly funny one, but I admired its romanticism and its gentle plea for the acceptance of difference. Of how many romantic comedies can you say they are sweet and disturbing?

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey

at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

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50 First Dates

** 1/2 (out of four stars)

Produced by Jack Giarraputo, Steve Golin and Nancy Juvonen, directed by Peter Segal, written by George Wing, photography by Jack Green, music by Teddy Castellucci, distributed by Columbia Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.

Henry Roth. . . Adam Sandler

Lucy Whitmore. . . Drew Barrymore

Ula. . . Rob Schneider

Doug Whitmore. . . Sean Astin

Sue. . . Amy Hill

Parent's guide: PG-13 (crude humor, marijuana references)

Playing at: area theaters