(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all.)

Before Adam Sandler hit us with his lazy vacation period (you know what films I’m talking about), it was always easy to identify his worst movie: Little Nicky. The film was a financial disaster, his first flop after an unstoppable rise from the cult hit Billy Madison to the hugely successful Big Daddy. Even more painful, it was a financial disaster on a very ambitious swing, story-wise. A film where Sandler takes care of a child with an adorable speech impediment is almost mathematically certain to succeed. A film where Sandler uses an obnoxious speech impediment to play the son of Satan is not. 

Little Nicky proved Sandler had limits, and stands out as a blight on his filmography as a result. Twenty years later, however, the time has come to remove that blight and put it where it belongs (I dunno, Bedtime Stories maybe). Little Nicky rules and it’s high time more people figured that out.

Weird Sandler is the Best Sandler

From his days on Saturday Night Live to the goofy joy of Hubie Halloween, Adam Sandler’s comic voice is best suited to absurdity, even better if the characters he portrays are absurd themselves. This is why it’s usually funnier when Adam Sandler plays a character with a weird voice that directly makes him part of the comedy rather than just a straight man commenting upon it.

In Little Nicky, Sandler not only does a weird voice, he does a whole weird body, talking out the side of his mouth like a bad Sylvester Stallone impression and spending most of the film hunched over like an elderly person. Even if you like this sort of thing, it is a lot.

But it’s also of a piece with everything else going on. There isn’t much in Little Nicky that isn’t heightened to a wild degree. We can blame part of this on the fantasy-driven story, but even that doesn’t quite explain why Patricia Arquette portrays some kind of adult child, Popeye’s Fried Chicken appears to be the only food on Earth, or Rodney Dangerfield’s just hanging out in Hell without any demonic makeup on. Why does Dana Carvey’s referee character have to be an old man with a super high voice? Why is it Henry Winkler who gets attacked by bees (twice)? Who knows! Everything is weird, so it’s not so disastrous for the film’s main character to be thoroughly weird as well. And it’s not like they don’t comment on it or make jokes at Nicky’s expense. In fact, that’s about all they do.

Running Jokes Galore

Running gags are a mainstay of Adam Sandler’s comedy and Little Nicky features a ton of them. From Quentin Tarantino’s blind priest who repeatedly hurts himself while fleeing Nicky, to the ongoing romance between Kevin Nealon and his Sasquatch Demon lover, to Clint Howard’s kinky cameo that never seems to end (uh, 2000-era Clint Howard had a surprisingly nice body), Little Nicky manages to create a whole ecosystem of in-jokes to appreciate in only ninety minutes. As a result, the extensive “where did they end up” character title cards before the end credits are more satisfying than you’d think.

And then there are the running gags that span more than one movie. For instance, Rob Sneider’s “You Can Do It” guy makes an appearance. Sandler’s regular pals (Peter Dante, Jonathan Loughran, Allen Covert) have prominent roles. Carl Weathers even shows up in Heaven as Chubbs, his amazing Happy Gilmore character (with both hands intact). It does kind of make you wish you were watching a Chubbs movie, but you’re also just thankful to see the guy again. Little Nicky may be an outlier, but it’s still a Happy Madison through and through.

We Didn’t Know How Good We Had It

Little Nicky’s failure taught Sandler an unfortunate lesson about getting weird with his storytelling. Like the movie or not, it was a wild flex to make a supernatural comedy about the son of Satan vising Earth at a time when Adam Sandler was successfully branding his romantic appeal in films like The Wedding Singer. The next time Sandler revisited such a dark topic it would be in animated, Hotel Transylvania form. It’s not that Sandler never got wild again, but he certainly never got this wild again, not in one of his own films at least.

And rated against other Sandler films from his early era, that wildness is the only part of Little Nicky that stands out. The rest seems way less offensive in retrospect, particularly given how bland and conservative Sandler’s output would later become. Now, rather than being the one black mark on an otherwise perfect career, LIttle Nicky feels like a refreshingly unique flavor, the only Adam Sandler film where you can see a guy with boobs growing out of his head, or a talking dog piss an arrow at someone, or Ozzy Osborne bite the head off a CG bat. That alone makes it worth some reevaluation. Well, that and the parts where Jon Lovitz gets chased around by a horny crow.

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