Little Nicky
review by Gregory Avery, 10 November 2000

After testing the boundaries of physical humor (Happy Gilmore) and comedic taste (Big Daddy), Adam Sandler, in Little Nicky, initially appears to be testing the audience's ability over seeing him in anything, or as anything. As Nicky, son of the Horned One, he has a long lick of black hair that covers one side of his face, and he speaks out of the corner of his mouth on the other side that's visible, using a voice that comes out as a rasp. While on Earth, he wears mittens and a variety of quilted coats, including one that wraps him up from neck to toe so that he waddles when he walks and looks like a giant oven mitt. He gets hit by several moving vehicles, sending him back down to the Fiery Pit only to come right back up to Earth, again.

There seems to have been a party-like atmosphere on the set of this film, as all sorts of actors drop in and out of the proceedings: Jon Lovitz, Courtney Cox Arquette, Kevin Nealon, Quentin Tarantino (playing a blind street preacher who tells Nicky, upon first encountering him, "You...make the Lord...very nervous...."), Lewis Arquette, Carl Weathers, the Harlem Globetrotters, Dana Carvey, Regis Philbin, Michael McKean, Henry Winkler, Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Schneider, and, in a glorious appearance during the last third of the film, Reese Witherspoon. Rodney Dangerfield appears as Grandpappy Satan, wearing a long red velvet smoking jacket and saying at one point, "Even in Hell, I get no respect."

Having said all that, once you get past the pee-pee jokes, vomit jokes, breast jokes, and some others that I'm probably not remembering at the moment, Little Nicky turns out to have an oddly ingratiating quality. In the film, Nicky is content to leave his "dark side" unexplored, playing air guitar in his room and steering clear of his two bullying older brothers (Tommy Lister, Jr. and Rhys Ifans). When Pappy (Harvey Keitel, in a perfectly fine performance) decides he's not going to abdicate his seat on the Infernal Throne for another thousand years or so, Nicky's brothers decide to go up to Earth and stake their own claim, disrupting the order of things and causing Pappy to, literally, fall apart. It's up to Nicky to save his dad and set things right, and he does so with the aid of a talking bulldog (outstandingly rendered by the same special-effects house that worked on Babe, and wonderfully voiced by Robert Smigel); an actor (Allen Covert) who's almost out of the closet (Nicky doesn't mind, making this the second movie where Sandler, to his credit, performs alongside gay characters who are not made the subject of mockery); two heavy-metalheads (Peter Dante and Jonathan Loughran) who think Nicky's origins are just the coolest thing; lots of Popeye's takeout chicken (this is probably not entirely a product placement, since, so I've been told, some people get addicted to the stuff -- but we do find out that they drink Diet Coke in Heaven); and a charming girl named Valerie (Patricia Arquette, in her most appealing performance in years), whom Nicky falls in love with, causing him at one point to float in mid-air because of it.

The relationship with Valerie, and Nicky's genuine determination and concern over  the fate of his father, not because he's the Devil but because he's his father, make up the heart of the picture, and both it and Sandler's performance are essentially very good-natured. In previous films, Sandler has tended to come off (to this member of the audience, anyway) as arrogant, even bullying, in what he wanted us to laugh at and how he wanted us to give our approval over what he was doing. Bellowing at characters, and behaving obnoxiously in other ways, he came off like the kid in the schoolyard who would stomp on your toes or kick sand in the sandbox just to get your attention, and it was very off-putting, but it was also done in a way that made you feel like a jerk if you didn't laugh.

Here, Sandler's character discovers, perhaps a little too obviously, that being benign has its strong points, too, and Little Nicky shows that Sandler can be sweet-natured on camera and still hold the attention of its gaze without being boorish or entirely vulgar. I was reminded of the performance that first got my attention, in the 1994 Nora Ephron film Mixed Nuts, where, trying to cheer up a distraught person camped out in the offices of a crisis center during Christmas, Sandler's character produces a ukelele and starts crooning a gentle, erstwhile song to lighten the mood. It was a wonderful moment, partly because it came about so unexpectedly, but it was also funny. I'm not saying that Adam Sandler should go all soft on us, now, but he has an appealing, and more giving, quality as a performer that he's been keeping hidden from us for a while. Maybe he should free it and see what happens for once, before he gets locked into becoming the world's oldest arrested child.

Directed by:
Steven Brill

Adam Sandler
Harvey Keitel
Patricia Arquette
Tommy Lister, Jr.
Rhys Ifans
Allen Covert
Rodney Dangerfield

Written by:
Tim Herlihy
Adam Sandler
Steven Brill




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