By playing the devil’s offspring as a good-natured loser, Adam Sandler reaffirms the delicate balance of menace and mirth behind his best movie characters. After the execrable Big Daddy (where he unsuccessfully tried to be both man-child and father figure), Little Nicky marks Sandler’s return to the well-established formula which serves as the framework for his particularly effective brand of lowbrow comedy: Make the familiar ridiculous and despicable characters lovable.

Favorite son of the dark prince (Harvey Keitel), Nicky (Sandler) spends his days in hell compiling heavy-metal mix tapes and avoiding the ire of his brothers, Adrian (Rhys Ifans) and Cassius (Tommy “Tiny” Lister Jr.), who more aggressively pursue mayhem as a way of life. When the devil refuses to retire and appoint an heir, the angry sons head above ground and land in Manhattan. Their flight upsets everything in hell, and a most reluctant Nicky is sent to retrieve them.

The screenplay by Sandler, Tim Herlihy and director Stephen Brill establishes Nicky’s personality early on and lets the often ribald comedy derive from his hapless adventures with a talking bulldog, two satanically inclined metal fans, a sexually ambiguous actor, and Valerie (Patricia Arquette), a shy art student who also doesn’t seem quite able to deal with the inherent cruelty of the modern world.

While relegating the crudest moments to quick jokes (one involves Hitler and a pineapple), Sandler keenly satisfies the gross-out crowd while delivering inside jokes (references to his own movies such as Happy Gilmore and The Wedding Singer) and a storyline which sends up conventional ideas of not just good and evil, but right and wrong.

Like Nicky himself, Sandler finds that success comes when he unleashes his little devil, but realizes that a spoonful of sugar helps the malevolence go down.

E-mail Serena Donadoni at [email protected].

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