There’s a strong case to be made for Adam Sandler being the most successful Hollywood star of all time. Not of the past 25 years, nor our generation. Of all time.
He has been a bankable leading man since 1995 and is rarely part of an ensemble cast. He alone sells his films, which range from arthouse features by directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Noah Baumbach, to gritty dramas like the gripping Uncut Gems, to broad comedies universally panned by critics that still rake in Scrooge-like mountains of cash and hook generations of viewers that just want to laugh till it hurts.
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One surefire way to sell a Sandler movie is to have him starring opposite Drew Barrymore in a romantic comedy. The two have undeniable chemistry – a different beast from sexual fire. Theirs is a PG-sorta connection, with meet-cutes, goofy glances and corny ukulele songs. This connection was the cornerstone of The Wedding Singer in 1998 and still sparked in 2014 with the underrated Blended.
“I was convinced at the time that we were supposed to pair up. I knew it. I knew it in my bones,” Barrymore wrote in her memoir Wildflower of their first professional meeting, which she says “looked like a preppy and a punk set up on a bad blind date”.
Barrymore pushed hard to be part of 50 First Dates, a script she had read and loved, but which had been acquired by Sandler’s production company Happy Madison.
“It felt small, deep and very emotional,” Barrymore writes. “But above all, it was beautiful and romantic.” Sandler invited her to star and co-produce with him, and the rest is celluloid history.
50 First Dates opened on Valentine’s Day in 2004 and brought in $283m at the box office, despite a poster featuring Sandler strumming a ukulele and Rob Schneider playing a perma-baked Hawaiian. Chemistry, as the movie teaches you, will overcome any obstacle.
In the film, Sandler plays Henry Roth, a wayward vet at Sea Life Park, whose best friends include an African penguin and a walrus. (If this is where you stop reading, you are forgiven.)
He first spots Barrymore’s Lucy Whitmore building a weird structure out of her breakfast waffles, because that’s what Drew Barrymore characters do, and proceeds to chat her up with awkward goofball charm – because that’s what Adam Sandler characters do. They agree to have breakfast together the next morning and a romance is born.
Alas, Henry turns up and Lucy doesn’t know him from a waffle teepee. Cue wacky amnesia storyline, in which Henry must somehow win her heart afresh each and every day, despite her overbearing father, her roid rage-filled brother and various mishaps, such as her attacking him for waking up in her house the first time he sleeps over.
As with every film from the early 00s, there are elements that simply wouldn’t pass muster these days. There’s Alexa, an ambiguously gendered assistant who is the butt of many easy jokes. There’s the troubling idea of an entire community banding together to trick a woman with a severe brain injury, albeit in the name of true love. At least this time, Sandler doesn’t kidnap a child, à la Big Daddy.
There is also the medical aspect, which many have complained doesn’t adhere to the actual science behind short-term memory loss. This is true. Then again, if you go to Adam Sandler films for stark realism, you may also take issue with Sandler putting with a hockey-sized golf club in Happy Gilmore, enrolling in a primary school as an adult student in Billy Madison, or being a feared linebacker and NFL prospect in The Waterboy.
So, yes, as with every single Sandler film, there are many naysayers and plot holes so large even Happy could putt through them. But this is surely missing the point of 50 First Dates, which is a sweet-hearted gem and among his very finest work. So, as Sandler yells in every single film, perhaps it’s time to “take it easy!!!”