By Owen Gleiberman
Updated November 17, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

It was only a matter of time before Adam Sandler literally played an idiot from hell. The title character of Little Nicky, Sandler’s latest craftily stoopid, infantile-as-I-wanna-be comic bash, is a slack-jawed, quavery-voiced mental defective who just happens to be the son of Satan. Timid and daft, Little Nicky (Sandler) resides in the underworld, where his father, played by an amusingly svelte and fey Harvey Keitel, lords it over the local demons, personally meting out punishment to his most prestigious tenants (he’s got a regular appointment to shove a pineapple up Adolf Hitler’s heinie). When Satan chooses to extend his reign for another 10,000 years, Nicky’s brothers, sleazy Adrian (Rhys Ifans) and hulky Cassius (Tommy ”Tiny” Lister Jr.), decide to revolt by blocking the gate to hell and blasting their way to New York City, where they unleash a rowdy epidemic of sin. It’s up to Nicky to bring his dastardly siblings home, a job that requires this ultimate sissy-boy loser to get in touch with his inner evil.

Little Nicky is a movie that invites you to feel Adam Sandler’s creative pain. Watching it, you can just about see him at home, trying out funny faces in front of the mirror, all the while thinking, ”My God, can I actually come up with another whiny, cowering man-child who is somehow different from Billy Madison, the Waterboy, or Big Daddy?” As Nicky, Sandler is like Jerry Lewis impersonating the Hunchback of Notre Dame — all that’s missing is a drool bucket. He wanders around with his mouth twisted open, his pageboy-dork hair plastered over his face, his body, stooped in a waddling crouch, wrapped in a full-length down jacket so hideous it looks like a mingy bedcover from a fleabag motel. In Little Nicky, Sandler doesn’t just corner the market on cringing-violet geekdom; he closes it down. Yet this is also the first of Sandler’s aggressive low farces that’s trying to be more than a one-man cretin-hop jamboree. The movie, which bounces back and forth between Manhattan and hell, is a metaphysical slapstick gross-out party, like The Waterboy crossed with Adam Sandler’s Dogma.

Little Nicky keeps throwing things at you. We get Jon Lovitz in a gleefully gratuitous peeping Tom prelude, Quentin Tarantino overacting (appropriately, for once) as a blind sidewalk preacher, Nicky’s innocent discovery of New York delights (”Popeye’s Chicken is f—in’ awesome!”), a hilarious scene in which Adrian inhabits the body of an archbishop and exhorts his minions to sin, some truly unfunny bathroom humor, computer F/X that turn Nicky into an army of Sandler-headed spiders and Satan into a fragmented leper, and Nicky’s horny canine sidekick — a talking bulldog named Mr. Beefy whose tendentious growl makes him sound like a constipated Jack Nicholson. There are laughs to be had, yet the movie is, if anything, more strenuous than it is funny. Sandler showed promising hints of range in The Wedding Singer, the one movie he has made that isn’t pitched to your inner slob. It may be time for the king of the geeks to consider, once again, broadening his rule. B-