The main character of Fifty First Dates is a marine veterinarian named Henry Roth who works at a SeaWorld type establishment in Hawaii. Now, it’s quite possible that Roth was given that job because Adam Sandler (who plays Roth) likes to set his movies in vacation paradises, but regardless of how they decided to give his character that career it’s a fitting choice. Why? Because this movie’s spirit animal is the whale.
Now, I know that sounds insane, so let me explain: whales have all of these crazy vestigial features that indicate that they used to be land mammals at some point. The most famous example is probably their pelvic bones - basically, the only reason why whales would have them is if they had spent some time walking around on legs before they permanently became sea creatures. That means that whales make for a good parallel to Fifty First Dates, because this is a film with a pretty streamlined surface but you just know that if you could crack it open and get a glimpse into it's history you'd get a much more complicated picture.
Let's tackle the surface first: Fifty First Dates a romantic comedy about a man who is afraid of commitment... Until he falls in love with a woman named Lucy who can't commit to him because she has a magic movie brain injury. Lucy’s problem is that she can’t form any new memories - she can remember whatever happened to her on any given day until she goes to sleep and then it all evaporates. As bizarre as it might sound to call such a specific and unlikely brain injury "standard", this sort of obstacle is standard issue rom-com stuff because rom-coms love weird conceits and cosmic irony, and also because the movie treats her trauma less as an existential nightmare and more as a convenient way to give Henry and Lucy multiple meet-cutes. The bulk of Fifty First Dates moves with the predictable yet pleasant swiftness of a genre movie that knows what it's doing - it establishes it's characters in broad strokes, only gives them as many quirks as it needs to set up the jokes, then hustles through the motions.
But there are definitely spots where you can see the bones of what would have been a very different movie poking through. In the early going there are several scenes that suggest this movie was almost as raunchy as Sandler’s early movies before someone decided that it needed to become a more genial romance. For example, Roth's assistant is a very masculine woman whom he constantly insults for being unfeminine, and we're introduced to her in a scene where Roth presses down on a walrus' stomach until it spews gallons of vomit onto her. (Sandler is so proud of this prank he high fives the walrus afterwards.) Also, Lucy’s brother does too many steroids and everyone makes fun of him because he keeps having wet dreams - a joke I don't get quite, but which sneaks a little vulgarity into the movies mostly family friendly middle. When you combine all the little ways that this movie is obsessed with masculinity you realize that there must have been a darker, meaner tone in previous drafts of the script, back when the film was aimed more directly at Sandler's insecure teenage boy fanbase and less at women.
You can also tell that the script had to be rewritten multiple times to moderate Roth's flirtation with Lucy so it wouldn’t feel creepy. The fact that he has all of his faculties and she doesn’t leaves them inherently unbalanced as a couple: the first few times Roth hits on Lucy he strikes out, but because he has an infinite number of first tries he slowly starts to discover the right way and the wrong way to approach her – a set up which completely favors him. Eventually he learns to manipulate her to good ends - he gets to where he can convince her that they are dating early enough in each day that they still have enough time left to have a romantic time together before she forgets him again that night. But if he didn’t have the intentions of a saint then he would be a very, very bad person. I’m sure a lot of work went into making Henry the most patient and understanding boyfriend possible, because if he felt like a real person he would probably come off like a scam artist – or worse, a rapist.
Actually, the film can’t completely avoid a rapey subtext. In particular I'm thinking of a scene that takes place on their 23rd date. At this point in their relationship they've made out a few times but have never had sex. If Roth was flirting with a normal person his desire to take things to the next level would make sense, but in this context it's more complicated because Lucy has to take his word for it that they’ve been dating for weeks. There's obviously nothing to stop him from lying to her and no way for her to verify his story. It's a scene that's handled reasonably well, but it did remind me of the scene in Memento where the bartender spits in Leonards drink right in front of him, then his memory resets and he obliviously drinks the beer right down. (Although I don't remember Memento having a subplot where a one-eyed Rob Schneider was always trying to spy on Leonard when he was having sex; that definitely happens here and is very weird.) If this film treated Lucy’s brain damage with the same seriousness that Memento treat’s Leonard’s brain damage then their sex scene would have been very troubling – but here it’s presented as if it was utterly sweet and it (mostly) works because the movie has done enough groundwork to ease us into it.
I have no proof that earlier drafts of this script were vastly different, but I can't imagine that they found this exact tone at the beginning. I'm sure that they had to take the original script and crass it up a bit so it would appeal to Sandler's fanbase, but then I'm sure they had to pull back quite a bit because Sandler's characters typically have rage problems and that absolutely wouldn't work in this context. I'm sure that every scene had to be fine tuned over and over again to make it absolutely clear that he was incapable of mistreating her, because the instant that he abuses her in the slightest way all sorts of alarm bells would go off in the viewer's mind. And then they probably had to work hard to semi-integrate the two halves – to make Henry Roth seem like a guy who could be casually cruel to his assistant at work but then a complete stickler for every minor detail of dating etiquette in his private life. They eventually found a hybrid script that managed to juggle all of these tones pretty well and which managed to sidestep most of the obvious pitfalls, but it can't have been easy getting there. I'm sure there were quite a few drafts about unfortunate land mammals before this retreated back into the water and became the champion swimmer with unnecessary pelvic bones that it is.