50 FIRST DATES

PG-13

-By


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Suspicions that there may be a real actor lurking in "Saturday Night Live"'s Bill Murray first surfaced a decade ago in Groundhog Day, a quirky antic in which he was doomed to reliving the same 24 hours time and again (three times during the film, each time varying the expected plot turn). It tickled the brains of the intelligentsia, and Stephen Sondheim, for one, has said he thinks there just might be a Broadway musical in this eccentric yarn.

In 50 First Dates, the premise is pulverized senseless by a latter-day "Saturday Night Live" gang: Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider and, lending some "SNL" seniority to the proceedings as a voice of fleeting reason (a doc who doesn't see a way out of the cycle), Dan Aykroyd.

Debuting screenwriter George Wing seems to wing it--with a lot of help from rewriters like Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (City Slickers), Tim Herlihy (Mr. Deeds), Allen Covert (Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights) and Sandler himself. It's the sort of thing that plays well in a story conference but looks imbecilic and unconvincing on the big screen.

This committee's report: that mental illness is the way to true happiness. Lucy (Drew Barrymore) is locked in perpetual replay by a head injury sustained in an auto accident--are you laughing yet? Wait, there's more: This makes her the dream girl for Henry (Sandler), the king of the one-night stand and, otherwise, a Hawaiian aquarium veterinarian. His tastes are colorfully eclectic, as we learn from the opening credits that crawl by over the testimonies of his contented, if confused, customers who never see him after Date One.

It's the devil to pay for Henry's rou past--contriving new ways to meet Lucy every day--only it's the audience who pays it. The most ludicrous extension of this short-term memory-loss gimmick (thank you, Memento; thank you, Paycheck) is the madness-making monotony that Lucy's brother (Sean Astin) and father (Blake Clark) put themselves through, protectively repeating the day's events for her benefit.

The nagging notion that none of this is funny and much of it is sad dawns early, and that's confirmed when the movie pauses in its manic reprising for sappy sentimentalizing. The given doesn't give much leeway for a realistically happy ending, but this doesn't stop the movie from bulldozing its way into one. (Lucy wakes up to a daily reorientation videotape, which sure beats waking up screaming because a strange man is in her bed.)

Earnest and evenly matched, Sandler and Barrymore play well together--as they did in 1998's The Wedding Singer (which also may be Broadway-bound as a musical). The most likeable presence in the film is Astin, as a lisping, steroid-taking wannabe hunk. The most obnoxious--and Sandler movies usually set the mark for this--is Lusia Strus, leaning heavily on the androgynous card (a la "SNL" alumnus Julia Sweeney's Pat) as Sandler's aquarium assistant. Genuinely funny, and virtually unrecognizable behind the glass eye and grubby Cheech Marin get-up, is Schneider, playing a happy-native family man.

Director Peter Segal, who steered Sandler through Anger Management, keeps this picture spinning in ever-widening circles for the duration. The Hawaiian scenery is a big lift, but the lovey-dovey walruses look over-rehearsed, and the dolphins naturally showboat.

-Harry Haun


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