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Early in 1999, after Jerry Falwell informed a conference of evangelical Christian leaders that the Antichrist walked among them, it was Sandlerregularly cited by film reviewers as evidence of America's cultural declinewhom amused commentators in Time and The Nation nominated for the role. Had he not already played Satan in the Norm Macdonald comedy Dirty Work (possibly the worst reviewed movie of 1998)? Sandler, who became a star on Saturday Night Live for cracked-voice renditions of songs so lame they broke even him up, had garnered an inexplicably huge following. Plus, as stipulated by Falwell, he was a Jew.
Consider Little Nicky, which opened last weekend, Sandler's psychodrama. In lieu of acting, he plays what he isan adolescent icon. Dorkier than even his most hapless fan, Sandler's Nicky is a backward teenager with a Quasimodo stoop, bad Marilyn Manson hair, an apish lopsided gape, a raspy speech impediment, and a wall full of Metallica posters. He lives in suburban Hell, prancing around his bedroom in an oversized black robe and horned sneakers, playing air guitar on a spear while the souls of the damned rain down from the orange sky. (This elaborate underworld takes its visual cues from Hieronymus Boschcool!not least in suggesting possibilities for mixed and matched parts of the human anatomy.)
As presented in movies like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, Sandler's persona is that of the violent or vengeful klutz who, however socially maladroit, is a good boy at heart. Thus, Nicky is compelled to leave his room to save his father, Satan (Harvey Keitel), by pursuing his evil older brothers to New Yorkalready designated as the Antichrist's domain in numerous recent films like Lost Souls and End of Days. Their plan is to establish Hell on Earth: Disguised as the movie's equivalents of Cardinal O'Connor and Mayor Dinkins, Nicky's brothers pull a few showy maneuvers, but what Sandler is really after is a nostalgic recreation of the late '80s, when he and his cohorts were at NYU.
Little Nicky suggests nothing so much as a suburban white boy's view of the East Villagean awesome seedy paradise of homos, thieves, and crazies where people can parade their afflictions or shit on the sidewalk, where pot is cheap and you can have all the junk food you can scarf. That Nicky is constantly returning home to Hell to check on his dad adds to the undergrad flavor. Nevertheless, he is immediately recognized as satanic by Quentin Tarantino's blind street preacher and, once they hear his dybbuk-like snore, by two babbling heavy-metal fans: "Wow. Dark Prince is here!" Sandler thus anoints himself the patron saint of pulp fiction and devil music, not to mention arrested development and 12-year-old boys.
Sandler's last three featuresBig Daddy, The Waterboy, and The Wedding Singergrossed a combined $400 million, and the 34-year-old actor received $20 million and profit points to star in Little Nicky. But despite expectations that first-weekend grosses would double his fee, Nicky got its butt kicked by Charlie's Angelsa celestial action spectacle understandably preferred by a nation frozen in the post-election media limbo of rival slow-motion coups d'état.
Never mind that, as Nicky, Sandler gives his best-ever performance. CNN's review began by comparing him to George W. Bush, "a political candidate who 'wins' a debate by appearing to be less idiotic than everybody assumes he is." (For his part, Bush made daily Sandleresque appearances with a goofy smile and a huge bandage plastered to his cheek while Al Gore, trying to position himself as far away from Little Nicky as possible, made a well-publicized excursionhis family and Joe Lieberman in towto see the weekend's serious military drama Men of Honor.) Perhaps Sandler's lovable dumbness has helped make the planet safe for Dubya, but, in his way, he's done even more for Joseph Lieberman.
There's a reason why, when a group of Jewish grade school kids were asked a few years ago to name their Jewish heroes, Sandler finished second in the poll (behind Jerry Seinfeld but ahead of Howard Stern and God, who placed fourth). "The Chanukah Song," which Sandler first performed on Saturday Night Live in 1994 and released two years later, is not so much an alternative "Jingle Bell Rock" as an anthem of Jewish pride. This childishly sung doggerel places Sandler in the tradition of Yiddishizing troubadours Mickey Katz and Allen Sherman. But these precursors addressed a largely Jewish audience, and if they made a joke of their own Jewishness, it did not include Hollywood's nonethnic Jewish stars.
Sandler's open cultural narcissismidentifying a "list of people who are Jewish just like you and me" on national TV without fear that this might be a problemdispensed with the underlying subject of American Jewish comedy. Say it loud. No more anxious self-deprecation. Just the slightest bit of irony!