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Thursday, November 9, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Little Nicky' is, at best, unimaginative

Special to The Seattle Times

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Movie review

X 1/2 "Little Nicky," with Adam Sandler, Patricia Arquette, Harvey Keitel. Directed by Steven Brill, from a script by Brill, Tim Herlihy and Adam Sandler. 84 minutes. Several theaters. "PG-13" - Parental guidance strongly recommended for crude sexual humor, some drug content, language and thematic material.

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Watching most Adam Sandler movies (as an adult) is a little like eating at McDonald's (as an adult). Initially it might seem like a good idea; but afterwards, bloated and faintly nauseous, you feel mostly remorse. Deep inside, you know there are healthier things you could've eaten if only you'd taken the time.

In "Little Nicky," Sandler plays the third son of Satan (Harvey Keitel), a sweet boy who would just as soon head-bang to heavy-metal music in his room all day. Unfortunately, when his father takes up another 10,000-year reign in hell, his older brothers, Adrian (Rhys Ifans, the slacker roommate in "Notting Hill") and Cassius (professional wrestler Tom "Tiny" Lister Jr.), flee to earth and freeze the Gates of Hell behind them.

Since no souls can get in or out, Satan begins to deteriorate. It's up to Nicky - who, as the son of Satan, isn't a "soul" at all - to go to Earth, restore the balance of power between good and evil, and save his father all at the same time.

Of course he's woefully unprepared for the task. "I've never been to Earth," he complains. "I've never even slept over at another dude's house!" To help him along in New York City, where his brothers have set up shop, he's given a mentor: Beefy, a horny bulldog (voice of Robert Smigel), who urges him to "release the evil within," as if he were a Bizarro version of Yoda.

Sandler, who is probably funniest when he plays an angry, stupid New Yorker ("Happy Gilmore"), goes the "Waterboy" route by playing weird. Years ago, Nicky's brother Cassius hit him in the face with a shovel, and Sandler acts the entire movie with his face contorted to one side, talking in a hoarse whisper.

It's limiting, as is the script. At the heart of the movie is the assumption that our cultural memory is only a few years old. Normally this wouldn't matter much, but in "Little Nicky" the protagonists are thousands of years old. What did Nicky head-bang to before heavy-metal was created, for example? No clue. Apparently we can't think that far back.

The script also is unimaginative. OK, the two eldest sons of Satan are loose in New York. What havoc can they cause? Well, they inhabit the body of a cardinal and convince churchgoers to sin. (Too easy, but not bad.) They inhabit the body of the mayor and lower the drinking age to 10. (Legislatively impossible, but sort of clever.) They inhabit the body of a referee and ensure that the Harlem Globetrotters lose a game. (Huh?) But this last one allows Nicky to play a little one-on-one, which appeases all the slam-dunk-loving yahoos out there.

Of course there's a love interest for Nicky (the sweet-voiced but uninteresting Patricia Arquette), and cameos from everyone from Ozzy Osborne to Regis Philbin. There are even references to Sandler's earlier films. Carl Weathers returns as Chubbs, the golf pro from "Happy Gilmore," and Rob Schneider resurrects his role as the Townie from "The Waterboy." One of the funnier moments, in fact, is when brother Adrian attacks actor Henry Winkler (Sandler's coach in "The Waterboy," playing himself here) with a swarm of bees.

So will it matter that the movie gets negative reviews? That I urge everyone to see "Best in Show" instead? That I fear our national brain is developing the consistency of a Big Mac? No. But I can say this to Adam Sandler fans. Not having seen "Billy Madison," I rate his films, from best to worst, as follows: "Happy Gilmore," "The Wedding Singer," "Big Daddy" and "The Waterboy." "Little Nicky" comes in last.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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