Moving Pictures
Apr 28, 2023, 06:28AM

Little Nicky in Union Square

Seeing Little Nicky opening weekend at eight years old.

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Picture yourselves on the streets of Manhattan in the summer of 2000: a seven-year-old boy is walking out of the United Artists Union Square 14, and he sees a poster with the following tagline: “HE’S NEVER BEEN TO EARTH… HE’S NEVER EVEN SLEPT OVER SOME OTHER DUDE’S HOUSE.” But he, I—Little Nicky—didn’t see any of that. I saw my name on a movie poster: Little Nicky, starring Adam Sandler. MY NAME! I don’t know many people who use their full legal names without any changes or nicknames—luckily, I’ve always loved my name. So what if people assumed I was a girl? That’s their problem (still is). But there are very few famous male Nicky’s, and still fewer women who use that spelling (Nicky Hilton, Paris’ publicity-shy sister, is the only one I can think of). There’s Nicky Hopkins, but past a certain age, no one knows who the fuck Nicky Hopkins is; I’d like to say the same about the dozens upon dozens of rugby players that share my name in the U.K., but they’ll continue regenerating long after I’m gone.

Many men go by “Nicky,” but their legal names are “Nicholas”—not me. This was a point of pride when I was seven, and clearly, it still is at 30. This is all just to say, I could not fucking believe there was a movie that looked this cool with my name in the title. Kids named Brandon must be having a tough time now, and I remember in 2011 when our local sports announcer Gerry Sandusky had to make several hasty public statements differentiating him from the other one at Penn State. But never for me—the worst I’ve had to deal with is Kamala Harris sharing my birthday (give it back). It would’ve been a drag if Little Nicky sucked, but when I saw it at the UA Union Square 14 that November, it did live up to the feeling I had when I saw that teaser poster.

The screenplay for Little Nicky, along with Zoolander, should be studied by all filmmakers. These are flawless 90-minute comedies with perfect structures and premises so rich there isn’t a bum joke in either. Unlike all of Sandler’s other Happy Madison productions of this era—Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Mr. Deeds, The Waterboy, The Wedding SingerLittle Nicky isn’t bogged down in man-baby antics or painfully unfunny set pieces (Big Daddy is the other major exception, a film that, in the context of Sandler’s career, belongs in the same conversation as Punch-Drunk Love and Uncut Gems). He’s not playing a “retard” or a stupid layabout, but something a bit more nuanced: the introverted goth/emo son of the Devil, a head banging “teenager” aged somewhere in the five or six figures, along with brothers Cassius (Tommy “Tiny” Lister Jr.) and Adrian (Rhys Ifans), and his infamous father Satan (Harvey Keitel).

Little Nicky opens with two cameos, one intentional, another after the fact: Jon Lovitz is a peeping tom “learning Victoria’s secret” outside a woman’s bedroom window—the woman is Laura Harring, co-star of Mulholland Drive and unfortunately, not much else. After Lovitz falls and dies, he’s sent to Hell; there’s some PlayStation 2 CGI at first, but like Monkeybone, the sets, costumes, and production design of this movie are astonishing. The door to Hell, the “fire gate,” isn’t CGI, and when Cassius and Adrian jump through it to make Hell on Earth, the gate “freezes,” turning into a bright orange waxy thing that would never be made without visual effects today. Ditto for the extras in Hell in gimp outfits and monkey costumes—would Kevin Nealon sit in a chair for six hours every morning just to get those immaculate breasts made up on his pale head?

Sent by his dad to bring his brothers back, Nicky gets an “ugly duckling” girlfriend on Earth (Patricia Arquette), a talking dog friend named Beefy (voiced by Robert Smigel), and friends like…Sandler’s friends: Allen Covert, Peter Dante, and Jonathan Loughran (he’s the trucker who tries to rape Uma Thurman when she’s in a coma in Kill Bill). Rodney Dangerfield is the only cameo in Hell (besides Dan Marino, begging Satan for a Super Bowl: “You gave it to Namath!” “Yeah, but he was coming here anyway.”) But even as Dangerfield is playing himself, as in nearly every movie he ever appeared in, he’s technically Lucifer to Keitel’s Satan. This is a family of devils closer to The Simpsons than anything in The Bible or a typical horror movie.

We’ve established the primary and supporting cast of the film. The following people make cameos in Little Nicky: Henry Winkler, Reese Witherspoon, John Witherspoon, Quentin Tarantino, Ozzy Osbourne, Regis Philbin, Dana Carvey, Carl Weathers, Clint Howard, Ellen Cleghorne, Michael McKean, Rob Schneider, Bill Walton, George Wallace, Lewis Arquette, and Frank Sivero. Many of these people aren’t nearly as famous as in 2000, but they’re not brought in to play themselves, or to be shown off like show animals. Cleghorne may have one scene, but she’s hilarious as a dedicated Harlem Globetrotters fan; ditto for Lewis Arquette as the possessed priest commanding his congregation to abandon their mores once and for all: “SIN IS IN!”

Cassius and Adrian are the alpha male brothers, and they want to take over Hell when their dad Satan retires. But, echoing Logan Roy, he decides to stay on “for another 10,000 years.” That’s when the “boys” escape to Earth and turn it into a violent bacchanalia, with only daddy’s “sweet boy Nicky” left to stop them and bring them back to Hell. I still think this is the greatest setup and premise for a comedy of its era, one with so much freedom and so many jokes that go beyond easy pop culture references and harping on Nicky’s shovel-induced speech impediment. This is a movie where the costumes get laughs, one where Popeye’s Chicken is blatantly promoted throughout, but it’s so well integrated into the plot, it doesn’t matter.

Speaking of pop culture references, this must’ve been the first time I saw Quentin Tarantino. Although I was a movie freak as long as I can remember, I only really started going to theaters every weekend around 1997 or 1998—right when Tarantino’s six-year break between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill began. Although his influence was everywhere, I didn’t know I was imbibing it throughout my childhood. But I remembered his performance as the blind Deacon in Little Nicky, and there’s one line that’s been burned into my brain since November 2000: “You make the Lord… VERY NERVOUS!” Tarantino pops up another three or four times in the film, but in minor bits, always injuring himself.

I know too this was the first time I saw a crossdressing man: “Nipples,” played by Clint Howard, dancing to a song that will always signal pervert to me, “Two of Hearts” (you have “Goodbye Horses,” I have “Two of Hearts”). Although Covert’s struggling actor character is the butt of endless gay jokes, the script isn’t homophobic or transphobic like contemporary classic Dude, Where’s My Car? Nicky accidentally peeps into Nipples’ window, and sees him rubbing himself to “Two of Hearts,” and, embarrassed, apologizes and lets him be. There isn’t any comment about the “fag downstairs,” nor any vicious material aimed at Nealon’s mammary-headed demon and his monkey lover, who Nicky also walks in on. He’s been the unpopular ugly duckling most of his life, “and I accept it.” Nicky only gets nasty when defending Arquette’s Valerie, and when John Witherspoon tries to scam him and her, Nicky walks away and mutters under his breath, “I’ll see you in a few years.”

The ability to have Nicky go back and forth from Hell—which he does often, learning that standing in front of buses and trains is a no-no on Earth—is a screenwriter’s dream. Similarly, the opportunity to have New York City turn into a nihilistic, violent dystopia overnight, with famous people cheering everyone on, all possessed by Cassius and Adrian, is a riot, and still the most inspiring scenario in any comedy of the 2000s. Death to Smoochy may be more grounded and incisive, and Dude, Where’s My Car? may be more archetypal, but none are as free and funny as Little Nicky.

—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith


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