Before [Sandler]: 50 First Dates (2004)
By Mark Abraham· Oct 31, 2013
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50 First Dates is a cupcake of a film: tons of unearned emotional frosting and cutesy sprinkles falling off it when you pick it up, falling in mounds like the icebergs that populate its final shot. But it’s also, I think, a kind of pivot point in Adam Sandler’s comedy movie-making career. It’s his last reasonably pleasant film that I think most would casually label “good”—or at least “enjoyable”—even as it emphasizes the features that mark his more recent and far less successful output.
Of course, casually calling a Sandler film “good” is relative, obvs. For starters, Sandler’s pre-50 First Dates comedy films aren’t exactly equal in quality. Mr. Deeds is boooooring and Anger Management is stupid, for example, and even the “better” ones aren’t much more than just engaging enough for Saturday ‘nooning if you’re hungover after too many cocktails Friday night. Unless you’re hosting a college reunion, I guess, which then by all means please shout “stop staring at me swan” at one another as you pass the Bloody Caesars out. But what makes early Sandler films so suitable for those times when you’re flipping through the channels and find yourself putting the remote down when you hit, say, The Waterboy is entirely by design: early Sandler films are written around memorable moments more than they are stories. They’re piecemeal. Their lines are like knock knock jokes from your childhood that have somehow never left your memory.
So I dunno if they’re “good.” When I do catch them now I find it’s increasingly the bit performances of folks like Steve Buscemi (Billy Madison and Big Daddy) or Kathy Bates (The Waterboy) that make me smile, because those are moments where veteran actors with nothing to prove get to play in the Sandlerverse in a way that Sandler and his cronies have never really been able. Like, I think the reason the late, lamented Chris Farley is the Sandler-adjacent comedian everybody loves is he’s the only one of Sandler’s usual cohort who doesn’t act like he expects you to high five him for how hilarious he’s being. Guys like David Spade look like they want that high five even when they aren’t being funny, and that sense of comedic arrogance tends to permeate the air of Sandler films. It’s in the approach, in the lazyness of the scripts, and even in the fact that Sandler actually has two tiers of also-rans—the ones who are independently famous, and the ones who aren’t—he so often inserts into his movies. I’m not sure if that makes them bad, because to be fair that arrogance is diluted—especially in his earlier output—to the point where it’s never suffocating, but it’s kind of like a ghost: just when you get comfortable it’s right there in your face. Boo!
I guess I should also note that his recent films aren’t really all equally dire. That’s My Boy is not a good film by any means, but it does have that extended Vanilla Ice cameo, and while Just Go With It is frustrating it’s far better than Click or Grown Ups or Jack and Jill or I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Nor are these films obviously more problematic than his earlier films. We’re talking about a filmography, after all, that is in its entirety flummoxed by two very obvious preoccupations that Sandler has never quite been able to shed: a) Sandler’s protagonists having love interests played by women who are approximately 138,473,372 times more attractive than he is; and b) a spate of sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist, and ableist humor that persists in each and every film.
This is not an article about these issues, but I certainly don’t want to elide them: Sandler is Sandler, and 50 First Dates features not one but two characters who solely exist as transphobic jokes; Rob Schneider once again playing an ethnic stereotype; jokes about how marriage is a prison and how wives are less desirable than girlfriends; jokes about a petite Sean Astin’s masculinity, and to make it worse his character also has to have a lisp, of course; a strange opening montage of women extolling Henry Roth’s (Sandler) amazingness, except while the white women praise his romantic sensibilities the women of color praise his sexual prowess; a series of jokes that monsterize Samoan Pomaika’i Brown’s imposing frame; and several meta-cracks about how Sandler isn’t nearly handsome enough for his co-star, Drew Barrymore.
…so, y’know, par for the course for a Sandler film, but also: ugh. It can be a funny film, but it’s a little like eating a tasty-looking salad only to discover that whoever made it didn’t bother to wash the grit off the greens. It’s offensive, and it’s even more aggravating because it’s so lazy.
So why is 50 First Dates worth talking about at all? All those things I mentioned stay the same, sure, but there are also the things it changes.
The typical format for a pre-50 First Dates Sandler film was to have Sandler play a character who was lazy and self-absorbed and petty but who also possessed some great skill. That skill, though its specific manifestation varys from film to film, is always a metaphor for the same thing: an anti-establishment, anti-PC, but-still-privileged masculinity. (…Which is precisely the reason that Sandler’s most ardent fans are, by and large, white straight men.) Sandler’s characters in these films are men who, by acting like children, are able to disrupt and subvert the conventions of their world’s patriarchy in humorous ways. Consequently, while Sandler films were—and remain—socially and culturally conservative, the main characters in them did, to a point, fit a 1990s Gen-X narrative that argued against the suffocating social and cultural institutions of the conservative 1980s. Which is exactly why the villains of his films were often—though not exclusively—played by ’80s actors like Peter Gallagher and Christopher McDonald. All because Sandler likes wearing t-shirts to business meetings and football jerseys to press conferences.
The other ingredient in the success of these films, I think, is that their protagonists mostly existed on the edge of logic. For example, it’s easy to root for Billy Madison despite the fact that he’s pretty awful for most of the film because there’s nothing particularly aspirational about Billy. It’s not a film that asks you to see yourself in him; it’s a film that asks you to indulge in his fantastical story. It’s only in broad terms that one might relate to Billy, and that’s only if one finds his responsibility-less life appealing—and, let’s face it, he only lacks responsibility because he’s super rich. In a similar sense, Happy Gilmore, Bobby Boucher, Jr., and Nicky all exude a quality of fantasy: these are immature, childish creations by design, and so while they are funny and fun to root for in the contexts of their stories, they aren’t proscriptive because they can’t be, because real people don’t act like this. Even characters like Sonny Koufax and Longfellow Deeds who seem more traditional, at least on paper, fit into this mold: Koufax for his immature unwillingness to take responsibility in his life and Deeds for his childlike naivety. Sandler’s pre-50 First Dates oeuvre was, over and over, the story of young men being forced to grow up by some ludicrous circumstance, but managing to do so on their on termzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
…sorry. I fell asleep there. Because that story is, a billion years into humanity, pretty fucking boring. Plus, nobody cares about Sandler’s views on the boy becoming the man, which is why Billy Madison is far funnier getting drunk and chasing penguins than he is finally getting his shit together and taking over his dad’s business. My point is simply that the films worked because they could have it both ways: in broad terms, they appealed to a desire to escape responsibility, but in specific terms they were stories about unrealistic but very specifically rendered characters, which meant that the fact that they were often assholes wasn’t an obstacle to enjoying the film, because the film seemed to know they were assholes. Maybe not the extent to which they were assholes, but: assholes.
What makes 50 First Dates different is that it’s Sandler’s first film where he essentially plays himself. We’ve joked before that Sandler needs to buy a suit already, but for reals: the difference between Sandler’s pre- and post-50 First Dates output is most stark in terms of costume. Excepting You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, That’s My Boy, and one half of Jack and Jill, Sandler hasn’t really done a comedy film since 2004 where his onscreen wardrobe doesn’t look like something he may well have worn to the set that day. Sandler’s no longer playing characters; he’s merely playing [Sandler]. And, sure, 50 First Dates’ [Sandler] may be “Hawaiian vacation [Sandler],” but he’s a [Sandler] variation just the same. He’s just wearing what he packed in his suitcase. I bet it’s the same shit he wore for Just Go With It. And to the Oscars.
…Duh. Sandler will never win an Oscar.
Sandler’s [Sandler]s (excepting Zohan) now basically have two modes. First, we have the group of unrepentant lady’s men from 50 First Dates, I Know Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Just Go With It, and That’s My Boy. These are men who are committed horn dogs right up until they aren’t because they meet the one woman who makes their heart get a boner instead of their dick. Second, we have the happily married husbands from Click, Grownups, and Jack and Jill. These are men who normally have to deal with weirdo friends or family members but are themselves relatively boring people, which makes you wonder why they have movies about them in the first place.
It’s what unites the two groups of men, though, that is interesting: either way, [Sandler]s are comedic straight men, which is a big change from Sandler’s earlier films. Instead of playing a strange, fringy manifestation of humanity, Sandler’s primary role as the [Sandler] is to roast the weird shit his friends and families do. And while it’s not like older Sandler films were devoid of nastiness, reframing our protagonists as dickish loud mouths who take pleasure in the misfortune of others—and, by narrative fiat, are rarely, if ever, punished for doing so—makes these newer films seem far nastier. In 50 First Dates, Henry nominally has pleasant relationships with Ula (Schneider), Doug (Astin), Alexa (Lusia Strus), and Nick (Brown), even though all we ever see is him shitting on each of the four, which makes it incomprehensible that any would enjoy spending time with him. Hell, Henry’s a marine veterinarian, and even his relationship with his walruses, penguins, and dolphins is tense and nasty. On top of that, Henry’s entire shtick is lying to vacationing women—who are all presented as being desperate for companionship and sex—just to get laid. Missy Pyle is absolutely wasted in a brief appearance as a potential fuck buddy who still wants to have sex with Henry even after he admits that he’s spent the entire evening lying to her. Which might be fine if she was an actual character, but…we have to spend more time laughing at how gross Ula is. That’s more important.
I’m being harsh, ‘cause this stuff grates far less than it does in Just Go With It or Grown Ups or Jack and Jill, because at the very least there still are jokes here, and situational comedy, and cute animals. Additionally, the main story with Lucy (Barrymore), where she loses her short term memory while she sleeps at night—meaning that Henry has to re-attempt to forge a relationship with her each and every day—is fairly well done, and I respect the fact that by the movie’s end her condition hasn’t been resolved, meaning each morning she wakes up to be reintroduced to her now-husband and their daughter. It’s cute. It’s sprinkles. It’s penguins clapping. Remove the offensive stuff, and this is an innocuous film.
Except…50 First Dates is also different because it’s a film where Henry, the [Sandler], doesn’t learn anything. And [Sandler]s, maybe barring Donny Berger in That’s My Boy, rarely do. Perhaps we can chalk that up to experience. When Sandler did Billy Madison he was just hitting his 30s, and though he had a stint on Saturday Night Live behind him he was still chafing at the bit to become successful, so those early deliberations on success on your own terms made sense. By the time he did 50 First Dates he was in his late 30s and married (with his first child born 2 years later), so maybe he thought he had nothing left to learn? I dunno, but Henry doesn’t have to change, really, or at least he only changes at the beginning of the film by immediately falling in love with Lucy. Sure, there’s some hand-waving about him struggling with commitment, but that’s mostly due to the complexity of dating a woman who can’t remember him. Henry, it turns out, is right about everything, including that he can change his entire life around for the right woman. He tells her father and brother how they should also change their lives despite the fact that they’ve been dealing with Lucy for almost a year, and he turns out to right about that too.
This is a [Sandler] thing: it’s just like how in Just Go With It Danny abandons his playboy life at the beginning of the film for Palmer (Brooklyn Decker), and so even though he ends up with Katherine (Jennifer Aniston) in the end, his lesson was already learned. Even his bonding with Katherine’s kids—which is, I guess, his other obstacle—is largely achieved through Danny being right about how they’re wrong. He doesn’t pay for his movie-long lie to Palmer, and he doesn’t pay for ignoring Katherine for Palmer. Just like how in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry Chuck doesn’t really pay for his movie-long lie to Alex (Jessica Biel). Since 50 First Dates, the [Sandler] is mostly just put in amusing situations and, through no effort of his own, gets his way. Even in That’s My Boy, where Donny arguably has to learn a lesson about responsibility, the end of the movie still largely revolves around his accidental discovery of almost daughter-in-law Jamie’s (Leighton Meester) incestual infidelity, which means that he was right all along that his son (Andy Samberg) should have listened to him. Which means there’s no weight to any newfound sense of parental responsibility he might have gleaned.
I get that Sandler isn’t going to make comedy films where his characters get their comeuppance. But there’s something weird, I think, in the fact that since 50 First Dates his films have largely featured protagonists—who are framed as being smarter and more incisive than anybody else in the room—facing no real obstacles to their happiness, even when they make massive mistakes. Now, part of the issue is structural: these stories rarely have stakes that aren’t swept under the rug just to get to the end, and endings are always the worst part of Sandler films. But part of the issue, I think, is simply that Sandler used to allow the characters he played to be a butt of jokes just like every other character, which made them more appealing. Shooter McGavin (McDonald) and Eric Gordon (Bradley Whitford) weren’t entirely wrong about Happy or Billy, right? Even in Big Daddy, which arguably anticipates the [Sandler] even earlier than 50 First Dates, allowed Leslie Mann’s character to call Sonny on his shit, and Sonny’s struggle with the Suite Life of Zack and Cody was a major obstacle he had to overcome to fully accept responsibility for his life. Sandler characters used to learn things, and sometimes they even had to account for their actions. [Sandler]s are often just mean-spirited, and the fact that none of the other characters seem to care makes us not care about those other characters.
I’m not really arguing that 50 First Dates was this precise moment where Sandler made an active decision to steer into the skid of his own notoriety and money. I’m not not arguing that, either, I guess, though I expect the transition was a little less precise, and as much about Spanglish and the end of his aspirations to be a mainstream actor as anything else. But 50 First Dates does showcase a lot of what we now dread about a new Sandler film. It even has the annoying product placement, even if it’s only Spam and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. With few exceptions, since 50 First Dates wardrobe changes and high-concept comedies are out and location-shot films with a bunch of friends are in. Because life is easier that way. Sandler isn’t even acting anymore. Hell, Grown Ups suggests he’s barely writing anything. He’s barely even making a movie, so much as having conversations with friends while skilled technicians capture those conversations on tape.
In conclusion, I doubt The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates, and the forthcoming The Familymoon will turn out to be Sandler and Barrymore’s Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight.
…um. I’ve never actually seen those movies, since not one of them is Bring It On, but I’ll still bet my life on that!