Artistic women with memory loss and the men who love them — that’s the premise of both The Vow, out this weekend with Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum in the lead roles, and 50 First Dates (2004), starring Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler. These films play against the standard boy-girl movie cliché, in that it’s the guys who know they’ve found their true romantic matches, and the women who, after seemingly falling in love, treat them like they’ve never seen them before. Of course, there’s a reason for that, and it has to do, in both cases, with brain trauma. Love may conquer all, but only if you can remember you’re in love.
One film goes for laughs, the other for tears. But for both our guys, it means turning on some real charm, not to mention extraordinary patience, in a big effort to get these gals to recognize their already-existing relationship. The frustration is palpable, as we learn in this verbal exchange from the comedy, 50 First Dates, when Lucy (Barrymore) busts Henry (Sandler) for touching her, in the guise of removing lint from her clothes:
Lucy: You were going for a feelski!
Henry: All right, I’m sorry. But this is like the twenty-third time we’ve made out already, and they’re getting blue.
Two blank slates, two determined suitors, two guys feeling blue — and not in a good way. Which movie does it better — the drama, The Vow, or the comedy, 50 First Dates?
How far would you go to rekindle the romance with your once-in-a-lifetime love? For Leo, a recording studio owner who has been married for four years to Paige, a local artist, the answer is pretty damn far. They have a passionate, indie-cool type love that comes from two people who worship each other’s every move. All that changes on a cold Chicago night when a snow plow bashes into their parked car. Paige goes through the windshield, with glass shards exploding everywhere, a visual metaphor for what has just happened to her memory.
In the hospital, as Paige wakes up out of her induced coma, her estranged parents are back in the picture and there’s a verbal joust between them and Leo for control of Paige’s recovery. As her lawful husband, Leo wins round one, but Paige still treats him as a stranger; all their hard-fought-for intimacy has been erased. In fact, it seems Paige’s memory has been reset at five years ago, when she had a previous boyfriend. Leo tries everything he can to jog her memory, but Paige has simply lost a block of time and experience, and there’s seemingly no way to get them back. Eventually, she returns to her family and even resumes law school, which she had previously dropped to become an artist.
Sam Neill as Paige’s lawyer father, and Jessica Lange as her long-suffering mother, create more roadblocks, as if battling a brain injury isn’t enough for poor Leo.
The Defending Champ
50 First Dates was released seven years ago and marked a reunion of free-spirited Drew Barrymore and perennial sophomore Adam Sandler after they worked so well together in The Wedding Singer (1998). The movie’s premise works well for both good-natured actors, landing right in their wheelhouse. Sandler plays Henry, a veterinarian living in Hawaii who is the value added to many female tourists seeking brief, no-strings, island romance. Barrymore plays Lucy, a local art teacher, who connects with Sandler in a café one morning. Sparks fly until the next day, when Sandler discovers he’s back to square one, because Lucy suffers from short-term memory loss or a form of anterograde amnesia, her memory blanking out every night. She was in a car accident a year ago and has been on daily rewinds ever since.
Henry goes along with the Groundhog Day repeats for awhile, until he decides to create a videotape explaining to Lucy her situation so she can get up to speed more quickly each day. This works so well that, at one point, she comes to realize Henry has postponed a research trip because of their relationship, and she breaks up with him rather than fret about holding him back. Henry is now shut out of her life, but he won’t give up that easily. He misses her and wants some proof that she remembers him even a little. They reunite when Lucy admits that she’s been dreaming of him even though she doesn’t know who he is. He takes that to mean he’s made an impact in her addled brain somewhere, and that’s good enough for him. They marry and live happily ever after, eating pineapples and coconuts and, presumably starting over again each day.
Moments in both these brain-trauma sagas are sweetly, forgive me, unforgettable. There’s real heart here as the screenwriters mine the depths of how it feels to nurture and then cruelly lose true love. It’s also a great male role reversal to see these guys’ guys display such tenderness in their efforts to heal their love interests. The ditzy-through-no-fault-of-their-own women are played adeptly by both McAdams and Barrymore — both so likeable, both so adorable, even with lesser material.
The acting in both films would be a tie, were it not for one notable standout. Sorry, Adam, but as a pure, female crowd-pleaser, Channing Tatum’s nude scene dusts you in your Hawaiian shirts. In fact, Tatum has such a rockin’ bod that it strains script credibility that poor Paige can’t remember that. Surely, she must. And even if she doesn’t, he’s so leading-man good looking that he physically trumps the swarmy guy she dated in high school by a long shot. It’s no wonder that Tatum is everywhere right now, including hosting Saturday Night Live and coming out in 21 Jump Street.
It might be helpful to have suffered a brain injury of your own in order to take either of these plots seriously. Of the two, Lucy’s daily repeat is probably the bigger stretch, although Paige’s selective impairment — she remembers most everything from five years ago except certain plot-convenient things, such as why she was in a beef with her parents — also require some suspension of disbelief. Playing Lucy’s condition for laughs was probably a good idea, whereas Paige’s coma definitely requires the dramatic treatment it’s given, so there’s no advantage there.
50 First Dates builds on the ground laid by Groundhog Day with a lot of humor and entertainment value. But Groundhog Day would cast a shadow over this film, which lacks its depth and sophistication. The Vow, on the other hand, is a poor woman’s version of that modern romance classic, The Notebook, without the entire fifty-year relationship to draw from. But even if both these movies have been done much better, those in the right mood can enjoy both of these casts and both films. So how do they match up? With so many things being equal and Valentine’s Day approaching, we’re going for the more authentically moving film. And to that end, there’s a lot more romance in our winner, The Vow, than in the much broader 50 First Dates. You’ll remember this film’s central relationship long after its plot contrivances have been forgotten.