Adam Sandler’s stint on “Saturday Night Live” began midway through the 1990-91 season, only a few months after my high school friends and I had started watching the show with a fervent intensity. We spent every Monday discussing the highlights of Saturday’s episode (which we had usually watched together anyway), followed by repeat viewings enabled by the magic of VHS, followed by constant references in our conversation, followed by none of us ever going on dates, ever.
I was a bigger fan of Chris Farley and David Spade, who were also new that season, but Adam Sandler made me laugh a lot too. It was mostly his “Weekend Update” appearances: Opera Man, Cajun Man, the guy who showed us cheap Halloween costumes, the guy who sang songs about red-hooded sweatshirts and Thanksgiving. Those were funny in short, absurd bursts. When Sandler started making movies, he wisely avoided one-joke characters like those and played people like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, guys who weren’t “ordinary,” but who at least spoke and thought like regular human beings.
Then, for some reason, he reverted back to “Weekend Update” mode, playing characters in “The Waterboy” and “Little Nicky” that were nothing more than infantile voices and dumb babbling. The mystery of why he thought such grating, thinly defined characters would be fun to watch for 90 minutes is exceeded only by the mystery of how many people agreed with him. “The Waterboy” made $161 million! It is the highest-grossing sports comedy of all time!
“Little Nicky,” released Nov. 10, 2000, was the first Sandler vehicle I reviewed in my official capacity as Grown-Up Movie Critic With A Job And Everything. I, uh, didn’t care for it.
What I said then:
“‘Little Nicky’ is almost 100 percent laugh-free. It’s like a frat party where the boys make lots of jokes … that they think are funny, but only because they’re stoned…. There are a number of things that make ‘Little Nicky’ a painful ordeal. First, it’s nearly impossible to even tolerate the title character, let alone like him, with Sandler playing him as a hoarsely whispering simp who elicits no sympathy. Second, many of the gags are old…. Third, the few jokes that are clever, subversive or original are ruined by over-playing them…. What can you say about a movie in which Jon Lovitz actually RAISES the level of class by playing a peeping Tom?… Reese Witherspoon out-performs everyone in her bit part near the end, and I seem to recall Dad’s assiduous assistant demon (Salvatore Cavaliere) being amusing. But the rest is just so abominably unfunny and unengaging that I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie receives the official endorsement of hell itself.” Grade: D- [the complete review]
Though it wasn’t a box-office hit (it made less than $40 million), “Little Nicky” became a treasured gem among Sandler enthusiasts. I’ve disliked most of what he’s done since then — but not everything. Maybe another visit with “Little Nicky,” eleven years later, would strike a different chord with me.
Casting Harvey Keitel as the devil and Rodney Dangerfield as his father is a fine thing to do. The joke with Dan Marino trying to make a deal with Satan to win a championship isn’t bad. I chuckled a little when Nicky produced deep-voiced demon sounds in his sleep.
But I cannot overstate how annoying Nicky is. Sandler’s breathy, whispery, palsy-faced performance might well have worked in a single five-minute comedy sketch. As the protagonist in a feature-length movie, it’s excruciating.
The movie’s larger problem is that its screenplay reads like a first draft. The story doesn’t make any sense or adhere to its own rules. Worse, the details in the dialogue — the actual jokes — are embarrassingly pedestrian. It’s like they kept saying, “We need to put a joke here,” and then never got around to doing it.
A perfect example of the film’s lazy writing is the running joke where Nicky’s dirtbag friend thinks Nicky’s roommate, Todd, is gay. Here are the lines:
TODD: You guys can crash here if you want. I have an extra futon in the bedroom.
NICKY’S DIRTBAG FRIEND: Uh, that’s a big pass, Elton John.
TODD: Did she hurt you? Do you need to cry on my shoulder?
NICKY’S DIRTBAG FRIEND: Easy, Liberace.
TODD: I was in love once, but she said I wasn’t financially reliable, and she needed that.
NICKY’S DIRTBAG FRIEND: Now, by “she,” do you mean “he”?
In other words, the joke consists entirely of saying, “I think you are gay.” That’s it. Not “I think you are gay, and here are some amusing details that have led me to that conclusion.” Not even “I think you are gay, and here’s a colorful way of describing how gross I find it.” Just: “I think you are gay.” Period. Compare that to Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen’s “You know how I know you’re gay?” routine in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” “I saw you make spinach dip in a loaf of sourdough bread” may not be brilliant, but at least it’s an actual joke.
“Little Nicky,” which Sandler wrote with regular collaborator Tim Herlihy and director Steven Brill, is defined by that level of laziness. After Todd tells Nicky he can’t have a dog in the apartment, the dog (who can talk; never mind why) stands on Todd’s “I LOVE ACTING” doormat and says, “You love acting? I love pissing,” and pees on it. The reason for this, ostensibly, is that the dog is angry at not being allowed inside. But it’s clear that the real reason is simply that Sandler and friends think the sight of a dog peeing is funny. It would be a waste to have a dog as a major character and NOT see him urinate! And if you can’t come up with a natural way of working that into the story, eh, don’t worry about it. Just do it.
Here are the two things that made me laugh out loud during this second viewing:
– When the angels tell Nicky that they can see all of Earth’s activities through their magic viewer, and what comes up first is an episode of “Felicity.” “Oh, that’s ‘Felicity.’ I love that show. Do you watch?” “I haven’t seen it, but I hear good things.”
– When Nicky’s brother demonstrates how evil he is by conjuring a celebrity: “I bring you a dear, sweet man, Mr. Henry Winkler. [pause] Covered in bees.” (Like a dog urinating, a person covered in bees is inherently a funny image. The difference is that here, it’s supposed to happen out of the blue, for no logical reason.)
That’s it. Goodbye, “Little Nicky.” Back to hell with you!
Do I still hate this movie?
Yes. In fact, now that I’m better able to explain the mechanics of why it’s not funny, I hate it even more. Grade: F