Antichrist Superstar

What the Devil Made Adam Sandler Do

Indeed, neither edgily neurotic nor verbally agile, devoid of social criticism and overt shiksa-lust, Sandler's comedy seemed to confound the prevailing stereotypes for American Jewish stand-ups. At the end of The Counterlife, Philip Roth imagined a Jew "without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness . . . just the object itself, like a glass or an apple." So the overgrown teenager Adam Sandler presented himself to America—much to the delight of his younger coreligionists. Around the time Big Daddy opened, New York magazine reported that "for a small but passionate army of young women," Sandler was nothing less than "a Jewish love god." Some equally passionate young Jewish men, meanwhile, have argued for Sandler's intelligence. A few months after the New York piece, the national Jewish student magazine New Voices put "Stan and Judy's Kid" on a cover that asked, "Is Adam Sandler the Most Important Living Jewish Commentator?" Inside, Harvard sophomore Benjamin Dreyfus offered a line-by-line exegesis of Sandler's "Goat Song" as a "Had Gadya"-like allegory of Jewish history, complete with illustration by Marc Chagall.

Little Nicky too has its share of free-floating Hebrew school tropes. The relationship between the young devil and his older siblings has echoes of Joseph and his brothers; the climactic confrontation between Nicky and the evil Adrian is staged as though it were Moses appearing before Pharaoh. But for Sandler, hellfire and damnation just don't have the gravitas with which the Christian imagination can imbue them. Unafraid to show Jews with horns, he presents Hell as the equivalent of a family-run Borscht Belt hotel that, existing mainly to torture Hitler, was founded by the actor's boyhood idol Rodney Dangerfield (in the role of Lucifer), is currently administered by friendly dad Keitel (outed as a Jew in Sandler's "Chanukah Song" sequel), and contested by his warring offspring.

Little Nicky follows a strain of Jewish mysticism by positing a cosmic design wherein demons and angels are necessary opposites. Heaven, visualized as a Valley Girl slumber party where the teen angels watch Felicity, is for chicks. Hell is for guys. Although the demoness Lilith (Adam's first wife) is conveniently absent, this cosmology makes one wonder if some member of the Sandler posse passed through one of Hollywood's fashionable Kabbalah groups or at least glanced at their glossy magazines. Little Nicky popularizes Lurianic Kabbalism by presenting Satan as a self-limiting deity whose gradual disintegration suggests the Breaking of the Vessels, as well as by according its hero the task of tikkun, the restoration of cosmic harmony—both in the movie and the movie industry.

Washington Post critic Rita Kempley may have only been half-kidding when, offended by the recurring joke that has Hitler repeatedly sodomized in Hell, she wrote that the movie ratings board "must be in league with the Devil" to have awarded Sandler's "smutty new farce" a PG-13. Even as Sandler accepts his diabolical role, he questions the notion of the satanic. Little Nicky opens by implicating the audience in a ridiculous demonstration that voyeurism is a mortal sin and riffs throughout on the fundamentalist notion of Hollywood movies and pop music as purveyors of satanic entertainment.

It's not just that Little Nicky pillages Ghostbusters, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, and, above all, South Park—or that, as a filmmaker, Sandler has made a virtual trademark of blatant product placement. Nothing in Little Nicky exists outside the pop culture universe. There is no Judas, just Judas Priest; no religious authority beyond Quentin Tarantino (who, like Paul Thomas Anderson, is anxious to work with Sandler). Ozzy Osborne is the ultimate Satan, and God—tastefully unseen—is described as "like Jeopardy smart." When Nicky's brothers want to demonize him, they graft his head onto Al Pacino's Scarface; when Nicky tries to save himself, he quotes the Elephant Man. The film's most important New York landmark is the Upper West Side coffee shop whose facade was spliced into each episode of Seinfeld.

Beyond good and evil, Adam Sandler personifies lowbrow popular culture. It was at a comparable point in his career that Jim Carrey made The Cable Guy—a meditation on the media system so horrific that it traumatized Carrey's fans and precipitated the worst reviews of his career. (Carrey unleashed the full force of his personality. He will never go there again.) Little Nicky has been described as infernal, damnable, and pure hell to sit through. But these rote negative reviews notwithstanding, the movie is no Cable Guy. The movie may turn out to be Sandler's first flop, but it's not because he doesn't want to be loved. On the contrary.

Just as Nicky learns to get in touch with his inner evil so that he can really zap you with his inner good, Sandler would like you to know that scatological humor and stupid pet tricks can't hurt you or your kids—at least no more than Popeye's Chicken or smoking devil weed. Call it an exorcism. Little Nicky may be gross, but like all of Sandler's films—even more than most—it is awash in family values. Excremental as it is, his vision of the pit is fundamentally reassuring. Satanic Hollywood isn't really so bad; Joe Lieberman is no cause for alarm.

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