Adam Sandler had me for life at the moment Happy Gilmore pulled the heckler’s shirt over his head, punched him in the stomach and sent him rolling down the hill.
If you know what I’m talking about, you know the unique brand of laughs that Sandler can provide, and you can’t accept substitutes. His films are simplistic, shallow and crude (the plot and dialogue, not the humor … oh wait, that too), but they have a comic energy that’s difficult to quantify and even harder to justify. You either like it or you don’t, and I love the man.
So it gives me no pleasure to say that Little Nicky, Sandler’s sixth self-made film, is easily his worst. Even more so than the intermittently funny Austin Powers sequel, this film is an example of a brilliant comic bereft of fresh ideas, yet too powerful for anyone to tell him he’s running on empty.
Sandler has made more out of less than just about any actor or writer working today. A scrap of an idea—a hockey player becomes a crack golfer; a ne’er-do-well son must pass all 12 grades of school to win his father’s love—can be turned into a quirky comic soufflé under his hands. While making highly personal comedies that miss most critics but squarely hit their target audience (guys about my age and the girls they drag to the theater), nobody has made something out of nothing better than Sandler.
But in Little Nicky, Sandler takes nothing and makes nothing from it. Sandler is the title character, the youngest of the Devil’s three sons and a punching bag for his brothers (Rhys Ifans and Tiny Lister). Everybody lives in an elaborately art-designed but fairly conventional vision of hell that probably cost more than Sandler’s first three movies combined.
When Satan (Harvey Keitel, looking embarrassed) decides he doesn’t want to pass on his throne to his sons, Little Nicky’s brothers get angry and head for the surface world. For unclear reasons, Satan literally starts to fall apart, and we’re told he’ll die if Nicky can’t go to Earth and get his brothers to come back to hell.
Hundreds of details—from why the almighty Devil is suddenly quasi-mortal to why Nicky listens to heavy metal music but doesn’t know how to eat or sleep—are simply left out of the script. Nicky gets an apartment with a roommate, learns to love Popeye’s chicken and romances a bespectacled, pigtailed design student (Patricia Arquette, still unclear on the whole acting concept), all while trying to track down his brothers with the help of a talking bulldog who apparently works for Satan or something.
The picture’s single biggest problems are the affectations Sandler has written for his character. He speaks in a pointlessly hoarse accent that’s supposed to be the product of getting hit in the head with a shovel by his brother, as is the vague scowl he sometimes wears. He’s hard to understand (and it doesn’t help that almost all of his dialogue was looped in post-production, making everything sound even more fake than it already is), but he doesn’t have anything funny to say anyhow.
Sandler is in the straight-man-with-a-speech-impediment mode he used too frequently on Saturday Night Live and again in The Waterboy, which was still a whole lot more good-natured and inventive than Little Nicky. Here, the smart-ass cynicism and well-timed physical comedy that set his movies apart are gone.
Sandler seems to think his paper-thin ideas and simplistic writing are what made him, when in fact it’s his original comic acting and his sense for the absurd non-sequitur that are his strong suits. The film’s timing is way off as well; Sandler is infinitely better when he’s initiating the comedy than when he’s reacting to, say, a talking dog.
It’s not even that tasteless, which is also disappointing. Sandler seems most concerned with getting in as many cameos as possible (by everybody from Reese Witherspoon to Quentin Tarantino). Judging by the relentless plugging, New Line cut a sponsorship deal with Popeye’s that’s probably big enough to pay for a large chunk of the special effects with which the film is saturated. But like the jokes, the effects are big and obvious—yet completely generic and unmemorable.
Sandler coasted through this one, but it’s not nearly enough to make fans give up. He’ll be back and so will we—and we’ll hope like hell he tries a little harder next time.
Little Nicky (PG-13) H1/2 Directed by Steven Brill. Starring Adam Sandler, Harvey Keitel and Patricia Arquette.