Two-ton box office gorilla Adam Sandler doesn’t do print interviews. So we can’t ask him how he felt when a pair of national weeklies and the Millennium Hell Web site last year proposed him as the Antichrist—unless the answer is to be found in Little Nicky, the $80 million vanity project that allows the most bankable movie star of the past three years to play the “spawn of Satan.”
Early in 1999, after Jerry Falwell informed a conference of evangelical Christian leaders that the Antichrist walked among them, it was Sandler—regularly cited by film reviewers as evidence of America’s cultural decline—whom 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 is—an 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 Bosch—cool!—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 York—already 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 Village—an 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 features—Big Daddy, The Waterboy, and The Wedding Singer—grossed 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 Angels—a 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 excursion—his family and Joe Lieberman in tow—to 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 narcissism—identifying a “list of people who are Jewish just like you and me” on national TV without fear that this might be a problem—dispensed with the underlying subject of American Jewish comedy. Say it loud. No more anxious self-deprecation. Just the slightest bit of irony!
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.
This mass-culture devil has all the Jewish virtues. He’s a good son and a nice boy . . . and even a potential family man. The toilet humor is just shtick. Not for nothing does Little Nicky‘s ad line reconfigure that of The Fly. It’s a mantra addressed to America: “Be Unafraid. Be Very Unafraid.”