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Why ''Little Nicky'' failed to be the No. 1 film

Special effects obscure what Adam Sandler does best, says Rebecca Ascher-Walsh

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Adam Sandler
Sandler: Chris Delmas/Zuma Press

Why ”Little Nicky” failed to be the No. 1 film

Last weekend, Adam Sandler got beat by girls with flying fists: His latest comedy, ”Little Nicky ,” opened at a little more than $18 million, well below ”Charlie’s Angels”’ $25 million box office take. While $18 million is more than most of us will ever see, Sandler’s failure to snag the No. 1 spot — especially over a movie that had already been out a week — suggests that with ”Little Nicky,” Sandler has made a devilish misstep. The god of goof went over to the dark side.

It’s a mistake that Jim Carrey made several years ago, as well, when he played the deranged and none too likable Cable Guy. However limiting it may be to comedic actors, audiences want to see their favorite funny guys not only being funny, but being true to character. (”Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” though, looks like a slam dunk; Carrey’s gift for physical comedy comes across even when his whole body’s wrapped in green Grinchwear.) While Carrey should be applauded for taking risks as an actor — check out his performance in ”Man on the Moon” — it’s hard to grant the same leeway to Sandler, whose role in ”Little Nicky” is not the stuff Oscar goes for. It’s just, as it were, out of character.

In ”Big Daddy,” Sandler charmed men with his bumbling attempts to learn to be a father, and seduced women with his aw shucks charm. With ”The Waterboy,” even if you didn’t think it was hilarious (which, for the record, I did), you have to give the guy credit for being willing to make a complete ass of himself. And in ”The Wedding Singer,” Sandler’s misguided mensch could make even the bitterest audience member smile. But playing the son of the devil? Even on paper, it’s hard to root for Sandler in that part. Add in fancy, sometimes overwhelming special effects — when what we want to see is Sandler’s wonderful reactions and studied clumsiness — and things get mucked up.

Sandler is planning to go even further afield with his next project, working with Paul Thomas Anderson, who directed ”Magnolia” and ”Boogie Nights.” But I bet his old fans, who know the guy can act, will want to see him strut his stuff. And if he struts it well, he’ll no doubt win new fans as well. But with ”Little Nicky,” the actor we love for showing us that dorks can win the day would seem to be testing the limits of his earthly appeal.