Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company — Happy Madison Productions — as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years, Sandler has slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of his big-budget studio comedies, some of which seem to be thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will Ben Sears retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join him and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.
It can’t be overstated just how hot Adam Sandler was as a movie star in the late 1990s. After scoring hit after hit with the likes of Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, Big Daddy and The Waterboy (not to mention his comedy albums and stand-up career), Sandler had shown that he was more than capable of carrying a studio comedy with humor and charisma. He was a well-established entity from his Saturday Night Live days, and his films struck a delicate balance of being family-friendly and silly enough to appeal to wider audiences without being too raunchy or provocative.
Which is why Little Nicky came at audiences like a shovel to the face. It’s not that Sandler’s previous films were comedic masterpieces; rather, they were endlessly quotable, lowbrow, high-concept comedies in which it was clear that Sandler was having fun. There isn’t even much of that missing from Little Nicky. I would even argue that the premise of the film — in which Sandler’s Nicky is the spawn of Satan who has to travel from hell to New York to retrieve his mischievous brothers — is one of the smarter concepts to come from his early career, full of comedic potential. Fill the cast with guest roles from Harvey Keitel, Rodney Dangerfield and future Oscar winners Patricia Arquette and Reese Witherspoon, and you’ve got a recipe for success. In fact, the film takes a minor step up in quality whenever Sandler is off the screen. Dangerfield is in his typical laid-back mode (he gets a handful of the film’s best lines), and the twisted ways in which Nicky’s brothers (Rhys Ifans and Tommy Lister) try to corrupt New York are dumb enough to be fun. Witherspoon, just on the cusp of super-stardom, is clearly giving her all to add a jolt of levity to the film as Sandler’s angel mother. It’s a shame she doesn’t appear until the third act.
The problem with the film — or, at least, the biggest one — is Sandler’s notoriously goofy voice affectation and crumpled physical presence. Sure, he had been known as a comedic actor with a range of vocal talents — much like his contemporary Mike Myers — but the voice Sandler gives to Nicky is so needlessly bizarre and grating that it becomes difficult to focus on anything he’s saying much less care about it. Compound that with Robert Smigel’s nasally whine as talking dog Beefy, who Sandler spends much of the film conversing with, and Little Nicky becomes a sonic endurance test. What’s most puzzling is that the voice doesn’t factor into Sandler’s overall character at all. Imagine the film without it and, although it wouldn’t improve much in quality, it would certainly be much less annoying. It’s not clear, however, if the voice is supposed to imply Nicky’s stunted mental capacity or childishness. If so, it’s dumb at best, horribly offensive at worst.
It’s hard to say what Little Nicky’s enduring legacy is right now. It’s not so offensively bad to be mocked outright (though it was nominated for five Razzie awards), especially among the forthcoming Happy Madison output. But it’s a far cry from Sandler’s high points in the late ’90s. There are even some occasional moments of sweetness thrown in, like Carl Weathers reprising his role of Chubbs from Happy Gilmore and Sandler’s tribute to his late friend Chris Farley in the closing credits. There’s nothing wrong with being a big, dumb comedy. You just have to put a little soul into it.
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: It’s tempting to go with Quentin Tarantino’s distractingly batshit cameo as a deranged preacher, but I actually liked seeing Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino early on. Marino, who had just recently retired as a player before shifting to broadcasting, makes a small appearance at the beginning of the film to plead with Satan to extend his playing career. It’s a solid bit!
- Just Go With It: The Happy Madison Promise. Sandler and company hardly invented the premise, but one thing we’ll surely come back to time and time again is the “hero facing off against the villain while the hero pleads his virtuous case in front of a large crowd” trope. It’s a feature in The Waterboy, Big Daddy and, to a lesser extent, The Wedding Singer, and it happens again here. Is that supposed to be the whole of New York City in the climax?
- Fart Joke Counter: Shockingly few, if any, in this entry, but what it lacks in that department, it more than makes up for in “men getting hit in the groin” moments.
- The Walkout Test: Hard to say. While Little Nicky is light on offensiveness, its stupidity could be a little too much. Plus, Harvey Keitel as Satan? Satan isn’t supposed to be sexy! A soft Pass!
- This film plays out as if Sandler had just discovered the joys of Photoshop; it’s mind-boggling how many plot points hinge on doctored photos and videos. I’ve always considered the original Jumanji to be the nadir of early-CGI quality, but Little Nicky gives that film a run for its money.