‘Pixels’ Review: Adam Sandler Versus Video-Game Characters, His Palpable Sense of Boredom
Adam Sandler used to make comedies. Now he makes Adam Sandler movies; bland exercises in nostalgia where he hangs out with his actor buddies, cracks a few jokes, and sleepwalks through a forgettable story to the sounds of early ’80s rock. Pixels is the latest and canniest Adam Sandler movie yet. It mines his older audience’s affection for the classic arcade games of their youth, and his younger audience’s affection for the idea of video games coming to life. The famous gaming cameos and big action sequences are sure to make Pixels a huge hit, even though it’s just as unfunny as everything else Sandler produces these days.
Sandler plays Sam Brenner, who was once one of the greatest arcade gamers in the world. In 1982, he was second only to an outlandish, showboating narcissist named Eddie “Fireblaster” Plant, but his life was never the same after he lost the 1982 World Championships. (Their rivalry will look very familiar to anyone who’s seen the terrific gaming documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.) Two decades later, Sam is a divorced tech installation expert and self-described “nerd” who dreams of a life of glory and success.
Luckily for Sam, glory and success find him, when aliens attack Earth in the form of classic ’80s video games like Centipede and Arkanoid. Actually, Sam might be the luckiest human being alive. It turns out that Sam’s childhood best friend Will (Kevin James) is, conveniently, the President of the United States. After their other buddy Ludlow (Josh Gad) is, also conveniently, the only person on the entire planet who receives the aliens’ declaration of war, the President calls Sam in to consult (and then to fight) the alien menace with advanced weapons expert Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan) who, also also conveniently, has just invented a new kind of light gun that can destroy the pixelated aliens, and also also also conveniently was his last (and also also also also conveniently newly single) installation client before the space invaders (from Galaga, not Space Invaders) destroyed a U.S military base in Guam.
Once Sam and his team (nicknamed “the Arcaders”) get to fighting the aliens, Pixels ramps up to the level of an inoffensive action film. Director Chris Columbus is a veteran of kid-friendly, CGI-heavy spectacles (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson & the Olympians) and he knows how to effectively integrate a human cast with digital effects. The half of the movie before Sam and his team get to fighting the aliens is as dire as anything released by a major Hollywood studio in 2015. Or 2014. (Or ever.) The allegedly flirtatious banter between Sandler and Monaghan is as painful as carpal tunnel syndrome after a Call of Duty all-nighter. On the other hand, at least writers Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling gave Monaghan some ostensible jokes; as the First Lady of the United States, Jane Krakowski barely gets more lines than Ashley Benson’s Lady Lisa, a mute video game warrior (and the object of Gad’s genuinely icky affections).
Peter Dinklage has a lot of fun as the adult Fireblaster, and one iconic video-game character steals a couple scenes after he defects to the Arcaders’ cause. Otherwise, Pixels is only bearable as long as no one onscreen says anything. Scenes like Josh Gad screaming at a bunch of elite Army soldiers or Sandler and Monaghan bickering in the White House War Room are as cringe-inducing as the best episodes of The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm. The only problem is those shows were designed to be awkward and unpleasant; Pixels was not.
By now, Sandler’s disinterested performances have become such a cliché, that film critics bashing him for his disinterested performances has become a cliché unto itself. Sandler’s stardom was built on his ability to summon boiling volcanoes of comedic rage, but these days he only seems to play one-dimensional schlubs incapable of registering any emotion beyond gloomy exhaustion. The list of incredible activities Sandler shrugs his way through in Pixels includes hanging out in the Oval Office, chasing giant video game centipedes through the streets of London, and becoming one of the most famous people in the world. Through it all, Sandler remains utterly impassive, maybe because no matter how little he exerts himself onscreen, audiences keep showing up to his movies.
Sandler is so inert through such wildly outlandish situations, that it almost feels like Pixels is designed, beneath the video-game adventure and shameless ’80s pandering, as a vehicle for Adam Sandler to express his self-loathing. Sam Brenner is basically a thinly veiled version of the guy his old fans think he’s become: a washed-up has-been who squandered an enormous amount of youthful potential. Most of the first half of the film is just Sam moping about his sad lot in life; how nothing turned out like he’d planned, and how he’s so far from the man he envisioned he’d become. He sounds a lot like George Simmons, the miserable hacky movie star of Judd Apatow’s Funny People, which explored similar veins of Sandlerian disgust.
That makes Pixels occasionally interesting but not necessarily entertaining, and Sandler’s perpetual hangdog expression remains at odds with the high-energy action. Comedy can certainly come from misery and melancholy, but Pixels is a movie about a video game fan who gets to relive his childhood, romance a beautiful woman, and become an international hero at absolutely no cost to himself. Amidst all of that excitement, Sandler looks as depressed as a film critic who has to keep reviewing Adam Sandler comedies — excuse me; Adam Sandler movies.
-At the risk of incurring a thousand “Stop thinking so hard! It’s just a dumb Adam Sandler movie!” emails and comments, I will note that the rules and boundaries of these alien video-game battles generally make no sense, and constantly shift according to the demands of any particular scene. Early on, the Arcaders don’t know what type of game they’ll be playing until the aliens show up in a particular form. Later, they get enough advanced warning that they’ll be facing off with Pac-Man that they have enough time to buy, equip, and paint (!) a bunch of MINI Coopers.
-Between Pixels and Ernest Cline’s Armada, this is a big month for pop culture that seeks to prove that gaming isn’t a waste of time, but rather serves as a perfect and ideal preparation for adulthood (or actual alien invasions). Expect the news of a Last Starfighter reboot imminently. (EDIT: It’s already happening, I just missed the news.)
-Sandler is one of the most notorious exploiters of product placement in Hollywood. The most egregious example in Pixels (beyond the constant barrage of classic arcade games) is a very visible cameo by Dan Aykroyd’s Crystal Head Vodka which comes (also also also also also also conveniently) just a few scenes after a cameo by ... Dan Aykroyd. What are the odds?!?