NOTE: It’s probably worth remembering that this was written before Sandler really started his assault on audience taste, intelligence, and sanity. Some would say the decline began here or even with The Waterboy or Big Daddy, but I stood with him until standing with him became aromatically unpleasant.
If you’re not already an admirer of the cinema of Adam Sandler — if, in fact, you’re one of the many who can’t seem to stand him — Little Nicky isn’t likely to win you over. As Nicky, the dweeby youngest offspring of Satan, Sandler almost goes out of his way to put off non-Sandlerites: speaking in a croaking voice that’s a cross between childish and child-molester, wearing his hair in two greasy black points across his face, he’s hard to look at and listen to. Yet Sandler remains essentially likable, a dork who stays true to himself and tries to do the right thing. Which in this case, oddly, is getting Satan reinstated to his throne in Hell.
Satan, played by an ingeniously cast Harvey Keitel as a sort of brimstone riff on his courtly Mr. Fix-It in Pulp Fiction, has reigned in Hell for 10,000 years; he’s supposed to step down and give the keys to one of his three sons — Nicky, who doesn’t really want it, or his two brothers, the saturnine Adrian (Rhys Ifans, from Notting Hill) and the imposing Cassius (Tiny Lister). When Satan decides to stay in charge, reasoning that his spawn aren’t mature enough to “keep a balance between good and evil,” Nicky’s brothers rebel, escaping to Earth and blocking the entrance to Hell so that no new souls can get in. This case of metaphysical constipation is bad for Satan, who starts falling apart. It’s up to Nicky, with the help of a talking dog named Mr. Beefy (voiced by Robert Smigel), to catch his brothers and save his dad.
I can’t say that Adam Sandler’s movies have ever made me laugh hard and nonstop (though his gently goofy voice in The Waterboy kept me amused throughout), and Little Nicky is no different. It’s a shambling, shabby comedy, basically good-hearted and naggingly endearing, and this movie’s high concept and snazzy special effects don’t detract from its lowdown charm. As always, Sandler meets a quirky woman (this time it’s Patricia Arquette, sweetly geeky in glasses, reminding us after such duds as Stigmata why some of us find her appealing); as always, he becomes bashful and sincere around her, offering his affections without ever trying to pretend he’s something he isn’t. (Well, he does tell Arquette he’s from “the deep South.” If so, did he mess with the ballots down there?)
At times, Little Nicky feels like Kevin Smith’s Dogma without the, well, dogma, or discussion of same. Unlike the Catholic Smith, the Jewish Sandler has no particular axes to grind or questions to ask about the God/Satan thing; he pulls together a cast worthy of Dogma (there’s a ton of cameos, including many Saturday Night Live veterans), but the scripting here (by Sandler, Tim Herlihy, and director Steven Brill) is more laid-back than Smith’s. Nicky lands in Manhattan, a place full of eccentrics, including two goofy headbangers, wannabe actor Allen Covert (a Sandler pal), and manic blind street preacher Quentin Tarantino. Hell is equally full of lively personalities, and those who remember Rhys Ifans as the scruffy Welshman in Notting Hill will be surprised to see him cleaned up here, looking like Ralph Fiennes crossed with Ziggy Stardust; when he temporarily claims Hell’s throne, he looks like he belongs there. Ifans is an actor to watch.
Little Nicky is a pleasantly sloppy party that doesn’t go on too long. It may represent a turning point for Sandler, who has probably taken the uncouth man-child shtick as far as it can go; will he still be doing this stuff five years from now, when he’s 40? (Then again, at the time of The Jerk, who knew Steve Martin had a performance like The Spanish Prisoner or a book like Shopgirl in him?) I like Adam Sandler’s movies — comfortable, unpretentious, never dull — but I’m always more interested in his next movie.