Hellbound Hellraiser Case File #168: Little Nicky

Hellbound Hellraiser Case File #168: Little Nicky

I was more than a little surprised by some of the more vitriolic comments attacking my colleague Scott Tobias over his awesome recent Inventory on particularly egregious moments of unearned sentimentality in Adam Sandler’s films. I didn’t expect so many people to feel protective of a movie star who makes tens of millions of dollars per film for hanging out with his buddies and churning out the laziest, most formulaic vehicles imaginable. 

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, since much of Sandler’s enduring appeal seems predicated on his status as a goofy everyman, the comedy superstar next door. George W. Bush’s appeal was similarly based in part on his incongruous status as Joe Six-Pack, even though he was the furthest thing from an ordinary guy. He was, after all, the son of a U.S. president who had previously headed the CIA. He attended the finest boarding schools and elite Ivy League colleges, and later flitted his way through such everyday occupations as co-owner of a baseball team, Texas governor, and most powerful man in the world. 

On a similar note, there’s nothing at all average or commonplace about Sandler’s life and career. He began doing stand-up at 17, was hired as a writer on Saturday Night Live at 24, became a featured player the following year, and soon was both a household name and a sure thing at the box office. At 43, he’s one of the richest and most powerful men in Hollywood, yet his fans still see him as someone they could grab a beer and watch the big game with. 

In his films and his life, Sandler breathes rarified air; he’s one of the biggest, most bankable movie stars of the past few decades. Yet his films are filled with the trappings of suburban middle-class life. Just like his fans, Sandler’s characters love sports, cheesy classic rock, drinking beer, hanging out with their buddies, and devouring fast food. Sandler is a consummate populist, which helps explain the impregnable bond between him and his fans.

Where most comedy superstars fit the template of the tortured comic genius, laughing on the outside and dying on the inside, Sandler seems disconcertingly well-adjusted. He’s happily married, and he almost single-handedly keeps Rob Schneider and David Spade from popping up on demeaning reality shows. He never appears in the tabloids, and the world as a whole could give a fuck about his sex life, even though he’s emerged as an unlikely sex symbol. 

I suspect part of the reason 2009’s Funny People underperformed at the box office is because it cast Sandler as a wildly successful yet depressed comedian and movie star who has an existential crisis when he’s diagnosed with a fatal illness. In effect, it implied that the real Sandler might be a bitter, sad loner who derives no satisfaction from his vast wealth and fame, in part because it came so easily to him. By having Sandler play a character whose life and career eerily paralleled his own, Funny People suggested that under the goofiness and man-child aggression of his persona might lie not the warm, squishy center on display in the most maudlin moments of his films (as chronicled in Scott’s piece), but nihilism, pettiness, and self-defeating narcissism.

I should probably state at this point that I think Sandler is a talented, funny writer and performer who consistently makes unfunny films, though like many of my pointy-headed film-critic brethren, I prefer Sandler films like Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People, which don’t bear his unmistakable imprint, and which push his persona into strange, challenging places,. But I also have a soft spot in my heart for Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, and I thought he was consistently brilliant on Saturday Night Live and deserved more credit for playing bizarre, almost avant-garde characters like Canteen Boy and the Herlihy Boy.

Assuming filmmakers don’t get too arty and shit, Sandler movies are surefire moneymakers. So why did Little Nicky, today’s entry in My Year Of Flops, bomb so spectacularly? Why did audiences who would later embrace the low-wattage likes of Anger Management and Grown Ups turn on the biggest movie of Sandler’s career up until that point, a hugely ambitious fantasy-comedy about the misfit son (Sandler) of the devil (Harvey Keitel) and an angel (Reese Witherspoon), and Sandler’s power struggle with evil half-brothers Tommy “Tiny” Lister and Rhys Ifans? 

An oft-overlooked component of Sandler’s popularity is his adorability. Even when playing ridiculous, far-fetched characters like the Cajun idiot of The Waterboy or Zohan in You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, Sandler’s man-children are cute in a way that’s appealing to women and non-threatening to men. Acting is all about choices, and in Little Nicky, Sandler makes the wrong decision at every juncture. In a bold/self-defeating move, Sandler gives his demonic/angelic title character a wheezing laugh, sideways nasal mumble, slouching posture, and a hairstyle that combines the worst elements of a bowl cut and a Prince Valiant ’do. Sandler might have conceived of his demon-spawn naïf as ugly/cute in an E.T. sort of way, but he registers more as Mac And Me-style repulsive. 

Had anyone other than Sandler made such eccentric, off-putting choices, studio executives probably would have either pulled the plug on Little Nicky after watching footage from the first day of shooting, or strong-armed the star into not doing everything in his power to push audiences away. But given Sandler’s track record and built-in fan base, it’s understandable why sane souls would defer to Sandler’s instincts, no matter how dodgy or misguided they might seem. In his early comedies, Sandler often played a man out of step with the world. In most of his pre-Little Nicky vehicles, he’s a rage-filled boy in a man’s body. Little Nicky pushes that to its extreme by casting Sandler as a nice, meek geek in the bowels of hell.

In a grim omen of lowbrow idiocy to come, the film opens with an elaborate sequence in which a peeping tom played by Jon Lovitz—one of several bazillion Saturday Night Live alums in the cast—plummets to his death after falling from a tree while pretending to be a big, horny bird. In hell, Lovitz is subjected to a Twilight Zone-style ironic punishment: demon Kevin Nealon has an actual big, horny bird attempt to sexually violate him. Repeatedly. Little Nicky has many faults, but a fatal dearth of gags involving Jon Lovitz getting raped by a giant bird in hell isn’t one of them. 

In spite of that, Little Nicky constantly brings in promising ideas, only to employ them in the most juvenile possible fashion. For example, the film introduces the intriguing notion of “mind wrestling,” psychological warfare between demons, then uses it initially for a gag where Lister makes Sandler repeatedly punch himself in the crotch. That’s the film in a nutshell: an elephantine, elaborate fantasy setup for the same old Adam Sandler cock-punching jokes. 

As the film opens, kindly devil Keitel, who seems to exist solely to preserve the balance of good and evil in the universe, is scheduled to pass down rulership of hell, King Lear-style, to one of his three sons: gawky, geeky Sandler; menacing Lister; or conniving, crafty Ifans, who lends the film a much-needed jolt of dry, quirky wit as an effete, vaguely glam-rock dandy. But Keitel decides not to turn over the reins after all, and re-ups for another 10,000 years. In an apoplectic rage, Lister and Ifans leave hell and head to New York with the intention of transforming it into hell on Earth. In the film’s slyest gag, the filmmakers suggest that turning New York into hell would be semi-redundant. 

Lister and Ifans freeze the entrance to hell on their way out, ensuring that no new souls can enter. Keitel begins to fall apart, leaving Sandler to travel to Earth to save the world and the life of his beloved father. Little Nicky is full of clever conceits limply executed, like having Sandler’s naïve but good-hearted half-breed die constantly so he can return to hell, then head back to Earth to repeat the process again.

Little Nicky is just a few rewrites and a new director away from competence, if not greatness. The premise radiates potential, but, like ADD-addled children, screenwriters Sandler, Tim Herlihy, and director Steven Brill—whom you might know from many other shitty Sandler vehicles—get fidgety and lose interest if they go more than a minute or two without a dude falling down or running into something, or a gay-panic gag. 

Take Quentin Tarantino’s cameo as a crazed street preacher, for example. There’s a certain warped wit to the notion that a street-corner crazy is the only one on earth who seems to realize that Sandler is something other than a spectacularly awkward tourist, but Tarantino is on hand primarily to fall down or run into things once every half-hour or so. 

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Sandler vehicle or a Happy Madison production without lots of unapologetic product placement, so before long, the title character develops a deep, abiding love for Popeye’s that figures prominently in multiple scenes.

At its strongest, Little Nicky is powered by an impish spark of anarchy, as Lister and Ifans use their ability to inhabit the bodies of anyone on Earth to wreak havoc and transform respected authority figures into bad seeds urging destruction, mayhem, and general incivility. In this clip, Lister and Ifans inhabit the mayor and a man of God, and use them to say and do rather ungodly things. 

In other mindless acts of destruction, sabotage, and subterfuge, Ifans gets Regis Philbin to kibbitz about beating a man senseless with a baseball bat. And in perhaps his greatest act of subversion, he gets a referee (Dana Carvey) to call traveling on the Harlem Globetrotters. 

The funny stuff in Little Nicky happens almost exclusively around the edges: Ifans indulges in such earthly vices as peppermint schnapps and pizza, and admonishes an angry throng of New Yorkers (is there any other kind?) “You’ve taken to sin with such minimal coaxing!” Sandler tells Witherspoon “I haven’t seen [Felicity], but I hear good things.” A pair of metalheads gets way too psyched about being in the presence of Satanic beings. If only the action at the center of the film were as inspired as this mayhem in the margins.

Little Nicky’s setting and fantastical plot open themselves up to all manner of crazy visual possibilities, but Brill is no Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton, and the production design seldom evolves beyond “Look at these huge, expensive sets we built.” Little Nicky has more potential than any early Sandler vehicle, which makes its failure to do more with its premise and grossly overqualified cast—Sandler’s boyhood hero Rodney Dangerfield turns in a glorified cameo as Keitel’s shtick-slinging dad—all the more disappointing. 

Still, I’d rather watch Little Nicky 20 more times than sit through Grown Ups again. With Little Nicky, Sandler and what Mad might refer to as the usual gang of idiots (i.e. Sandler’s college and Saturday Night Live buddies) attempted a special-effects-laden epic with the scope and ambition of Ghostbusters, another comedy about a beasties-plagued New York going giddily to hell and the free-floating insanity and bad vibes that ensue. As is generally the case, the bad guys have all the fun; Sandler’s twitchy, tic-laden, distracting performance makes it far too easy to root for Ifans to extend his reign of darkly comic anarchy. The irony of one of Sandler’s only bona fide flops—it grossed around $58 million worldwide on an $85 million budget—is that it’d be a pretty damn good Adam Sandler movie if only it didn’t have Sandler and his misbegotten central character dragging it down. 

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco

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