Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler in 50 First Dates50 FIRST DATES

Adam Sandler's 50 First Dates is about a man who falls in love with a woman suffering from short-term memory loss, a condition the filmmakers must think afflicts their audience as well.

It's been a long time since I've seen a film with such blatant disregard for its viewers' intelligence, but then again, the Sandler oeuvre doesn't exactly cater to the Mensa crowd. What's really astonishing is that the further Sandler gets from the psychotic derangement of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore - the more he tries to show his heart - the worse his movies become. (His performances in Punch-Drunk Love and Anger Management hinted at a minor upswing, but alas, 50 First Dates is a return to form.) Big Daddy and Mr. Deeds were unendurable not just because they were stupidly conceived and executed, but because no one, least of all Sandler, seemed to notice that his films never made a lick of sense; his heroes were applauded for their every action, no matter how inappropriate they were to the scheme of the plot. Why, for instance, were we expected to root for Sandler to adopt Big Daddy's little towhead when their every scene together suggested that Sandler was parenting a hateful juvenile delinquent? Why were we asked to hope for Sandler's courtly bumpkin to successfully woo Winona Ryder in Mr. Deeds when the character took scary delight in beating the crap out of his nemeses? Nothing seems thought-out in a Sandler vehicle; every scene, every gag, is set up for the quickie payoff, regardless of how it fits into the movie's design. I don't necessarily hate Sandler's comedies because of their star, but because they're so damned lazy; they assume that, like 50 First Dates' heroine, we won't remember anything we've seen five minutes after seeing it.

Take the opening sequence, a montage of women talking on their cell phones about the sexy stranger they hooked up with in Hawaii. Of course, we glean that they're talking about Sandler's character, and for a moment we perk up, trying to imagine Sandler abandoning his monotonous virgin-geek persona to play a smooth Hawaii-based lothario who loves 'em and leaves 'em. But then we cut to Sandler himself, breaking another woman's heart by telling her he's a spy, and it's the same old Sandler shtick: the slurred, mumbly delivery, the little-boy-caught-with-his-hand-in-the-cookie-jar awkwardness. And you think: This loser couldn't get laid in a million years. Yet we're supposed to accept Sandler's stud status as a given because, well, it's Sandler, just as we're supposed to believe that he undergoes some sort of character change, finally wanting to commit and all that, when he first locks eyes with Drew Barrymore's memory-challenged love interest. Yet Sandler doesn't seem to possess an ounce of sincerity; he's too schooled in ironic detachment to show his characters falling in love - he doesn't look at Drew any differently than he looks at his best friend (a nicely nutty Rob Schneider) or his pet penguin - and his attempts to win her heart seem more the acts of a lunatic stalker than a hopeless romantic. Again, why are we rooting for him? Doesn't Sandler have enough sycophants?

Yet the movie, a kind of Groundhog Day for morons, is senseless in all sorts of other ways. I was fine with the short-term-memory-loss angle - hey, it worked in Memento - but didn't anyone on the set realize that showing Drew's father and brother going to obscene lengths to convince her that every day is the same as the one before is more grisly than sweet? Isn't it unseemly for Sandler to make fun of the movie's mannish, European lesbian when the movie's opening scene implies that Sandler's character has romanced at least one man as well as all those women (in another throwaway gag we were supposed to forget about)? Is there a point to giving us Sandler's (supposedly sincere) late-film crying jag when it's indistinguishable from the phony, early-film crying jag he presents to Drew as a come-on? And in the film's romantic finale (Warning: Here comes a major plot spoiler, but I just can't help myself), doesn't anyone find anything the least bit depressing, and rather grim, about Drew waking up every morning to a husband and child she doesn't recognize? (So much for happy endings.) It's axiomatic that if a comedy is actually working, questions of this sort would never arise. But if, like me, you find almost nothing to laugh at in 50 First Dates, questions, and a vague sense of despair, are all you're left with.


Maria Bello, Alec Baldwin, and William H. Macy in The CoolerTHE COOLER

I loathed 50 First Dates, but I can't say that took me by surprise. The unremitting awfulness of The Cooler, however, was a complete shock. Here's a film that has received mostly glowing notices and an Oscar nomination for co-star Alec Baldwin; how is it possible that the movie is this bad? I don't think I believed a single frame of it. Director/co-writer Wayne Kramer has fashioned a type of Vegas-set morality play involving a notorious loser (William H. Macy) who, with the love of the requisite whorish-cocktail-waitress-with-a-heart-of-gold (Maria Bello), becomes a winner, and it's a total botch: abysmally written, directed with show-offy, Scorsese-influenced "attitude," and a dismal waste of acting talent. If you've ever wondered what a bad William H. Macy performance would look like, venture no further; he's left floundering with a series of sad-sack shrugs and grimaces, and performers like Bello, Ron Livingston, Paul Sorvino, and Ellen Greene are stuck with unplayable roles. (Bello fares the worst, but her character has the most lines.) As for Baldwin, I'm guessing that his nomination came from being the only person onscreen who even resembles a human being, but his Sopranos wannabe routine was infinitely more effective during his seven minutes in Glengarry Glen Ross; Baldwin might not win the Academy Award, but The Cooler itself wins my personal prize for most thoroughly wretched Oscar nominee of the year.


Ice Cube in Barbershop 2: Back in BusinessBARBERSHOP 2: BACK IN BUSINESS

Barbershop 2: Back in Business isn't so much a sequel to the 2002 original as it is a virtual re-make - again, Calvin's barbershop is threatening to close, this time due to a rival salon's appearance across the street - yet it's innocuous and pleasant, an agreeable waste of time. And although the film doesn't have the original's big laughs, mostly because Cedric the Entertainer's Eddie is featured more prominently (he proves to be more hilarious in limited doses), Ice Cube's Calvin continues to be the rapper-actor's most charming creation, Queen Latifah and Eve are around to spice things up, and the whole ensemble sparkles with the relaxed wit of a veteran comedy team. Their material might not be very memorable, or even very fresh, but the happy hum emanating from these actors is reason enough to visit this Barbershop again.

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