Hero takes a fall, part 72: Adam Sandler sure enjoyed a nice little run. While the first films he made as a lead did passable business - both 1995’s Billy Madison and 1996’s Happy Gilmore reached modest audiences - it wasn’t until 1998’s The Wedding Singer that Sandler really made his name as a star. That movie took in a solid $80 million and brought Sandler to a new level of recognition; the success of that romantic comedy meant that he could no longer be pigeonholed just as a kooky and crude comic with appeal mainly to teen boys.
While his next film - 1998’s The Waterboy - reinforced Sandler’s success with that particular demographic, its popularity showed that he still must have retained a lot of the new crowd he grabbed with TWS. Actually, Waterboy did so well that it’s clear a lot of new fans jumped on board; the film took in an astounding $161 million and became the year’s fifth highest-grossing movie.
A year later Sandler would demonstrate his staying power with Big Daddy. This flick combined his teen boy appeal with the romantic comedy aspects of TWS and produced Sandler’s biggest take to date; the movie racked up a fantastic $163 million. BD placed a little lower in the 1999 rankings - it was the ninth biggest hit of the year - but since 1999 was a much more competitive year than was 1998, that’s still terrific.
After three hits, Sandler seemed to have established himself as one of our biggest and most consistent box office draws, and expectations were high for his next flick, Little Nicky. In this movie, he’d play the son of the devil. Sandler as Satan spawn? How could that go wrong?
I can’t tell you why LN failed to retain the Sandler audience, but it did. Boy, did it! Its $80 million budget more than doubled the cost of Big Daddy, which had been Sandler’s prior most expensive film at $34 million. (Waterboy came in at a paltry $23 million.) Despite the lavish spending and apparently intriguing concept, Little Nicky totally stiffed. It pulled in a total gross of only $39 million, a figure that equaled the opening weekend of Waterboy and was a couple million less than what BD grabbed in its first three days.
To coin a phrase: yikes! To complete the sad tale of Nicky, on the end of the year charts, it would place a miserable 61st, a number that placed it two spaces behind the reissue of The Exorcist. Even 27 years after its initial appearance, I guess scary demons beat funny ones.
I didn’t see Nicky theatrically, but don’t blame me for the decline: I also never took in BD until it hit video, and that flick did well without me. Were it not for the success of the 1999 hit, it’d be easier to explain the failure of Nicky. Frankly, it’s not a very good flick, but neither was Daddy. While I didn’t enjoy every aspect of Sandler’s prior movies, Daddy was his first real dud; it showed a more puerile and less clever side of the comedian than left me cold.
Maybe others felt the same way. Perhaps Daddy attracted an audience based on Sandler’s prior successes and they were similarly let down by its excesses. As such, it’s possible that the failure of Nicky was a Big Daddy backlash.
Or maybe no one wanted to see the movie. It’s not always easy to explain the reasons for a flops, and I can’t conjure a convenient excuse for Little Nicky. As I mentioned earlier, the movie itself has lots of problems, but that’s not stopped many other flawed flicks from earning lots of money.
On the surface, the notion of Sandler as the son of the devil sounds like a “can’t-miss” proposition. At the start of the film, Satan (Harvey Keitel) nears the end of his 10,000 year reign. He needs to choose a successor from his three sons: brutish Cassius (Tiny Lister), conniving Julian (Rhys Ifans) and quiet, innocent Nicky (Sandler). To their surprise, Satan chooses to reinstate himself for another 10,000 years; he doesn’t feel any of the trio is ready for the mantle. This relieves Nicky, who doesn’t want the job but who fears his abusive brothers, but it makes the other two absolutely irate, and they decide to leave Hell and go to Earth.
They exit through a river of fire that delivers new souls. No one’s supposed to go in through the out door, so this causes the river to freeze; no souls can enter Hell, which means that Satan will slowly start to die. The only solution is for Nicky to capture his brothers and return them to Hell.
Since Nicky’s a wimp, that’s easier said than done, and most of the film shows his journey. He’s guided by a talking dog named Mr. Beefy (voiced by Robert Smigel) and along the way, he befriends swishy actor Todd (Allen Covert) and two devil-worshiping metal heads named Peter (Peter Dante) and John (Jonathan Loughran). Nicky also falls in love with nerdy Valerie (Patricia Arquette), who later will become a convenient target for the misdeeds of his brothers.
On the surface, all of this should work. It certainly sounds good on paper, and there’s a lot of solid talent under the hood. In addition to the actors already named, Nicky featured supporting work from a tremendous number of good performers. We get a long list of Saturday Night Live alumni such as Kevin Nealon, Dana Carvey, Michael McKean, Jon Lovitz, Rob Schneider and Ellen Cleghorne plus a slew of fun cameos; I’ll leave the latter personalities a secret, but those elements added a lot of spark to the film.
Actually, those scenes comprised almost all of the spark found in Nicky. I like Sandler as a performer and don’t mind most of his “funny voice” work - such as the title character in The Waterboy - but I thought he made Nicky rather annoying. Since we’re supposed to like and care about Nicky, that’s not a good thing, and little of Sandler’s natural charisma comes through during this film.
As for the rest of the main cast, most of the actors are really quite solid. Keitel seems to have fun in an atypical role, and Ifans adds gleeful nastiness to his part. Unfortunately, the performers have such weak material with which to work that the entire project falls flat. This is the kind of flick that thinks it’s hilarious to have the Devil transplant breasts on the head of one character, and many future gags revolve around that thin concept. Much of the humor relates to bodily functions and these jokes fail to deliver anything interesting.
Nicky just doesn’t know when to stop. A gag about how the Devil has an appointment to shove a pineapple up Hitler’s butt was lame enough to start, but the movie flogs it for all its worth. It should have been content with the line on its own, but in addition, we see Hitler come in and watch the proceedings. This was overkill and it didn’t make the movie any funnier.
Little Nicky wasn’t a total disaster. It’s almost impossible for so much talent to fail to provide at least a little humor, and some isolated parts of the film were entertaining. I especially enjoyed a clever take on Heaven, and Carvey’s turn was also a lot of fun. The flick had some clever twists at the end that added life. Nonetheless, Little Nicky was a generally unsatisfying film that stands as a weak entry in Adam Sandler’s résumé.
Little Nicky appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. New Line usually do a terrific job with their transfers, and Little Nicky is no exception; this was an excellent picture from beginning to end.
Sharpness looked consistently excellent. All elements of the image seemed crisp and well-defined, and I never saw any signs of softness or haziness. No moiré effects or jagged edges cropped up either, and print flaws appeared to be similarly absent. A speckle or two showed up during the movie, but that was it; otherwise the film seemed nicely clean and fresh.
LN provided a nicely varied palette, and the DVD replicated these hues well. Considering how much of the film took place in Hell, reds dominated the flick, and these were solidly deep and rich. All other colors seemed similarly clear and vivid, with no signs of bleeding or noise. Black levels also appeared wonderfully deep and dense, and shadow detail looked appropriately heavy but never excessively opaque. Ultimately, Little Nicky presented a tremendously vibrant and lively visual experience.
Also terrific was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Little Nicky. Normally comedies don’t present very active soundfields, but this was an exception. LN boasted a nicely active mix that kept me engaged. The front spectrum displayed great activity throughout the film. Even during more subdued sequences, the forward channels offered a nice blend of ambient sounds that seemed well-located and convincing. Unlike most comedies, LN offered some action scenes, and these appeared broad and encompassing. All five speakers received a fine workout throughout much of the film, as the surrounds added a solid layer of reinforcement to the mix. The rears were quite active throughout the movie and they added a lot of unique information.
Audio quality seemed to be positive. Dialogue sounded natural and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music appeared clear and bright, and the score displayed good dynamic range. Since the film featured quite a few rock songs, it was important for them to come across boldly, and the mix reproduced these tunes solidly. Effects also were clean and accurate, and they showed nicely qualities. I heard no distortion and usually found solid bass response. The music seemed especially deep and rich, as the track often offered fine low-end. Little Nicky created a very positive auditory environment that nicely complemented the film.
On this “Platinum Edition” DVD, we find a nice mix of extras, among which are two audio commentaries. The first comes from actor/writer Adam Sandler, writer/director Steven Brill, and writer Tim Herlihy. The three were recorded together for this running, screen-specific piece. On the negative side, this track isn’t especially informative. We learn some basic points about the actors, the characters and some of the effects, but there’s little depth to it. However, I must admit it was an entertaining listen because of the rude rapport between the participants. Herlihy and Sandler have been friends for years, and it’s amusing to here Sandler mercilessly crack on his buddy. Herlihy says almost nothing during the track, and his lack of participation opens himself to Sandler’s barbs, all of which were enjoyable.
Really, Brill’s the only one who seems to attempt to make this a traditional audio commentary, as he occasionally tries to steer the discussion toward the inside dirt. Sandler generally prefers to simply talk about the obvious on-screen actions, but since he enlivens his chat with a lot of humor, I didn’t mind this trait. Many comedians seem somewhat dull during audio commentaries - hello, Mike Myers! - but Sandler retains a fair amount of his personality here. It’s not a true laugh riot, but since the track offers so little information about the film, I enjoyed this piece much more than I normally would.
The second audio commentary takes a different approach; it compiles a slew of participants into on edited program. Hosted by actor Michael McKean, here we hear from a variety of other performers; the second track includes remarks from fellow actors Blake Clark, Jon Lovitz, Peter Dante, Jonathan Loughran, Ozzy Osbourne, Clint Howard, Henry Winkler, Tiny Lister, Rhys Ifans, and Kevin Nealon. While the results were clearly taken from different sessions and compiled, it’s an unusual piece in that McKean acts as interviewer through most of it. Many of the various participants chatted with McKean; only Ifans and Lister appear to have been recorded separately.
This different set-up makes the commentary strangely compelling but not great, however. We definitely go down paths that aren’t typically examined in these sorts of tracks. Much of the piece simply offers the typical praise of others; although the participants’ affection for Sandler seems to be genuine, it still becomes tiresome. Otherwise, this was often a fun and entertaining track that discussed experiences during the film and thoughts about characters; most of the actors played fairly small roles in the movie, so it was interesting to hear them provide additional remarks about their personae.
The track also took an oddly rambling tone at times as the participants schmoozed. For example, Howard and Winkler have known each other for years, and we hear them chat about their holiday plans for a few minutes. I found this to be strangely entertaining, and though the commentary as a whole was hit or miss, it offered enough fun to merit a listen.
Little Nicky contributes a variety of video pieces. First up is a general documentary about the movie. “Adam Sandler Goes to Hell” lasts for 32 minutes and 20 seconds and examines a variety of topics. We hear some remarks from the various actors before we launch into a mix of technical areas; the program leaps from costume and production design to special effects and animal handling. The show lacks a great deal of depth but it gives us a nice overall view of the production, especially because it provides some interesting shots from the set. As a whole, the program wasn’t a terrific documentary, but I largely enjoyed it.
More compelling was Satan’s Top Forty, a 17-minute and 40-second look at the history of heavy metal. We hear from rock historian Greg Burk, musicians Gene Simmons, Zakk Wylde, Ronnie James Dio, and Ozzy Osbourne, plus actors Sandler, Peter Dante, Jonathan Loughran, Kevin Nealon, and Allen Covert. The piece doesn’t take a very linear path but it gives us an interesting view of the genre. The program covers basic origins of the music and its history and looks at its main participants as we hear a variety of subjects covered. Most significant - and most logical considering the film in question - is the genre’s “connections” to Satan-worship. It’s a breezy little piece that is an entertaining view of metal.
Next we get a wealth of Deleted Scenes. There are 21 unused clips, each of which lasts between 15 seconds and two minutes 35 seconds for a total of 18 minutes worth of material. These include a combination of extended sequences and pieces that didn’t make the film in any format, and they’ll be interesting to fans of the movie. None of them seemed to get the axe due to quality problems; they’re as good as the footage that ended up in the flick, so most were likely cut due to time issues. Personally, I was happy to see more of the “Heaven” footage, which I thought was the funniest part of the movie; the extra scenes there were also quite good.
Some promotional materials appear on the DVD as well. We get the film’s theatrical trailer plus a music video for P.O.D.’s “School of Hard Knocks”. That four minute clips mainly offers the usual combination of lip-synch performance and movie snippets, though it’s a bit more interesting that most because of an odd storyline that features a battle between humanoid cats and dogs. Also, while the rock/rap genre is getting a bit old, the song itself is decent, so it’s a moderately watchable piece.
Cast and Crew splits between “Earth” and “Hell”. On Earth, we get filmographies for director Steven Brill, writer Tim Herlihy, and actors Patricia Arquette, Allen Covert, John Witherspoon, Michael McKean, Henry Winkler, Peter Dante, Jonathan Loughran, Clint Howard and Ozzy Osbourne, while “Hell” provides similar listings for actors Sandler, Harvey Keitel, Kevin Nealon, Tiny Lister, Rhys Ifans, Blake Clark, Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Smigel and Jon Lovitz.
A small Easter egg pops up in the “Special Features” area. If you can highlight a halo about Nicky’s head, you will access a trailer for the upcoming Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Finally, Little Nicky provides some DVD-ROM features. “Script to Screen” lets you read the original script while you watch the movie; the video runs in a small screen on the left as the text displays on the right half of the screen. The “Original Website” combines all of the material found at that location on the DVD itself. This includes screen savers, desktop wallpaper, behind the scenes details about the film, a trailer, play “Devil’s Hangman” or go through other activities.
That’s a solid roster of extras, and the high quality of this DVD makes it more compelling than it otherwise might be. Unfortunately, the movie itself is less interesting than the supplements. Little Nicky wasn’t a terrible film, but it failed to convey the talents of star Adam Sandler and his fine supporting cast well; it intermittently provided some wit and entertainment, but most of the flick lacked charm or flair. The DVD, however, looked and sounded absolutely terrific, and the extras were consistently excellent as well. Fans of the film and/or Sandler will be elated to check out this package, as it’s the best DVD representation available of one of his movies. Others who may be interested should probably give it a rental instead.