Only Pac-Man and friends come to life in the dull waste-of-concept 'Pixels'
Pixels Columbia Pictures
Director: Chris Columbus
Screenplay: Tim Herlihy and Timothy Downing, based on the short film by Patrick Jean
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Matt Lintz and Brian Cox
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 46 minutes
July 24, 2015
(out of four)
Ever go to a party that you think you're going to enjoy, except that one guy who wasn't invited shows up, and proceeds to bring all his boorish friends along, and before you know it he's completely taken over the place, practically made it his own party, and ruined it for everybody else? Well, that's what it's like to watch Pixels.
It all started out innocently enough, with a short film by Patrick Jean that went viral five years ago. Its "plot" - classic arcade-game characters invade New York City - was clever enough to be exciting and broad enough to serve as a jumping-off point for whomever wanted to take a stab at it. It was, if on one hand an explicitly corporate premise, also a kind of rare opportunity for someone to get a little creative with existing properties.
And then Sandler showed up.
Just when everyone thought they were going to have a good time, Adam Sandler crashed the party, and turned a promising sci-fi idea into a Happy Madison production. A collective lament: "What's that guy doing here? Who invited him?"
Despite generally staying away from existing material in the movies he personally develops (remakes like The Longest Yard and Mr. Deeds being exceptions), Sandler clearly saw something in Pixels that he could put his (lamentable) stamp on. The '80s nostalgia that's so common throughout his oeuvre was built-in to the premise already - what he brought to the table was the disingenuous underdog story, the exaltation of the lazy manchild, the cheap and boring comic gags, and of course the inexplicable and wholly unconvincing romantic pairing.
The "romance" here, between Sandler as the geek has-been and Michelle Monaghan* as the rich and beautiful divorcee, demonstrates what has become the defining characteristic of the Sandler comedy brand: total lack of effort. There's no real attempt to develop chemistry between the two, nor any series of events that would make their courtship even remotely acceptable. To put another spin on it, there's another character in the movie who's madly in love with a sexy video-game character. That character comes to life late in the movie and, naturally, falls in love with the mom's-basement-dwelling sad sack almost immediately. This is essentially the same amount of effort spent on the development of the Sandler/Monaghan romance.
* Add Monaghan to the distinguished line of actresses who've had their talents wasted - and their taste in men sullied - as Sandler-vehicle love interests, joining the likes of Salma Hayek, Kate Beckinsale, Brooklyn Decker, Marisa Tomei, Jennifer Aniston, Keri Russell, Jessica Biel, Emmanuelle Chriqui and Winona Ryder.
We realize that he makes wish-fulfillment fantasies - save the world, get the girl; accidentally become rich, get the girl - but must he make it so easy? In his version of wish fulfillment, his character learns nothing (except for a better strategy to beat Donkey Kong) and doesn't change, but gets everything he wants anyway. There's an ugly strain of entitlement at work; in this specific Sandler tradition, Pixels urges us to empathize with the self-described loser, but his only argument for our empathy is that in 30 years he never managed to get his shit together. Now that his one useful skill - playing 8-bit video games - is required to save the planet, he gets to be the hero and reap all the spoils that come with it.
If this was treated as some sort of cosmic, ironic joke - that the guy with the reasonably comfortable life who never made any effort to do anything with it but feels perpetually sorry for himself anyway somehow winds up accidentally saving the world and becoming rich, famous and lusted-after - then it might have worked, in theory. But that's not how it's handled. The film treats its story earnestly, as if this is a tale of triumphant redemption.
But Sandler's Sam Brenner - who has carved out a career installing home theater systems for rich clientele, which is how he meets Violet van Patten (Monaghan) and her plucky 13-year-old son - has no such redemption, because the movie is convinced he doesn't need it. He's one of those movie characters who thinks he's a really nice guy, when he's basically a jerk who thinks he's better than everyone - and lo and behold, an event comes along to prove exactly that. It's not even a narrative arc - it's just a plot manufactured to prove a narcissistic preconceived notion. To add even more fuel, this "poor guy" has the terrible fortune of having a direct line to the President of the United States, his best friend since childhood - played by Kevin James, who unfortunately continues to have a career in movies.
President Cooper, too, used to be an avid arcade gamer, and, like Bill Pullman before him, he answers the call to save the world from an alien invasion. Of course, it's not just Sam and Cooper - they need reinforcements, which come in the form of currently incarcerated trash-talking ladies' man (and Sam's childhood arch-nemesis) Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage, looking and behaving like a very obvious facsimile of The King of Kong's Billy Mitchell), and Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), boy genius-turned-conspiracy theorist.
Of course, with all this story talk, I'm kinda burying the lede, which is this: Pixels isn't funny. This is nothing new for a Sandler/Happy Madison film, but this one is a particular kind of not-funny, in that it never seems quite sure when it's even supposed to be funny. Between the plotting and the effects, it doesn't know where the comedy is supposed to go. That actually speaks to a strange sort of reversal for a Sandler movie. Generally speaking, they're sure-minded about what they want to do comedically (they just happen to be terrible at it), but cinematically they're often borderline incompetent. Pixels at least has a baseline level of technical competence. I so welcomed the presence of - and I can't believe I'm saying this - Chris Columbus, whose tombstone will one day read, "Director who possessed a baseline level of technical competence." Usually his bland studio hackery is dispiriting, but in a Sandler movie? I'll take it. With Pixels, he's actually the bright spot elevating the material instead of the anchor holding it back. The special effects are terrific and the movie actually looks like a movie. There are no Frank Coracis or Dennis Dugans here.
It would be easy to say that Columbus and his cast simply didn't have a lot to work with, but that's simply not true. As the entire body of work of Phil Lord and Chris Miller has proven, an absurd, brand-centric idea like Pixels can work wonderfully if you have people who really want to dive into the possibilities of it. But Adam Sandler has no such inclination. More than likely, the premise spoke to him in a personal way, but all he ended up doing was turn it into another lazy, slapdash Sandler production.