With Happy Gilmore receding into the past, Sandler has labored hard to prove that he's a real actor, to show that his crazy volatility can be shushed or amplified to dramatic effect. But Barrymore (see p. 86) is something else altogether. Since age 7, sobbing buckets for E.T., she has been an effortless, possibly great screen actress. Her range, true, hasn't been tested. She hasn't been hopscotching from one great director to another in search of meaty roles, à la Nicole Kidman. But then again she doesn't have Kidman's exhausting determination to stretch herself before our eyes, like a super-woman made of some miracle synthetic. What Barrymore does, from a Cinderella fantasy like 1998's Ever After to the sweet, dopey romance of The Wedding Singer (her first film with Sandler, from the same year) to even 2000's Charlie's Angels, is this: She hits emotional notes that are pure, simple and unforced. That sort of talent can almost literally light up the screen.
And she comes close to redeeming this not-very-good movie about an aquarium vet (Sandler) in love with a girl who can't retain any fresh memories since a car accident a year before. Sandler has to woo her every morning, because she'll have forgotten him overnight. Chunks of the film recall Bill Murray's Groundhog Day, only slopped up with gross humor (a projectile-vomiting walrus). But Barrymore has an earnest yearning that's touching. By the end, Dates is starting to jell into a more serious comedy about commitment in the face of killer obstacles. It's like Cold Mountain with walrus puke. (PG-13)