Don’t hate Adam Sandler for being Adam Sandler; hate him for his movies. Having now denied rumours that his next project, Netflix’s The Ridiculous Six, is riddled with racist portrayals of native Americans, he’s definitely earned his place as a target for our hatred. But once that hatred bleeds into our critical faculties, then we’re watching movies all wrong; The Ridiculous Six is probably going to be terrible, and ignorance bordering on xenophobia is only going to add to that, but keep your judgement for that film – and Sandler’s others – to just that film. His newest venture, Pixels, has so far been a whipping post for critics and bloggers since its release stateside, and it’s difficult to shake the feeling that some of that rage hasn’t been transposed from the Ridiculous Six scandal. One popular video review compares Pixels to ‘advanced scrotal cancer’; it’s bad, but it’s not as bad as scrotal cancer. What it really is, sadly, is a huge missed opportunity.
Sandler plays Brenner, once-upon-a-time Pac-Man champion, and current middle-aged installation guy. His childhood friend, Cooper (Kevin James), just happens to have grown up to be the President of the United States – which is convenient beyond the realm of reason – and together learn that an alien force has attacked Earth in the form of classic arcade video game characters. Using Brenner’s game know-how and Cooper’s considerable political persuasion, they plan to fight back and save the planet – with the help of military scientist Violet (Michelle Monaghan), conspiracy enthusiast Ludlow (Josh Gad), and Donkey Kong champ Eddie (Peter Dinklage). By playing the aliens at their own game (literally), it’s up to them to put thirty years of wasted time in a dingy arcade to good use. The same can’t be said for Pixels; wasting almost every opportunity for invention or warmth or wit, it opts for the cheap laugh via stupendously muddled writing. As the movie lurches forward, with half-assed set pieces following strings of painfully bad jokes, what starts out an exciting concept gets buried further into the dirt. The tip of the iceberg that sinks Pixels is its own absence of care for even the most important detail; chief among these is the shoe-horning of useless plot devices or characters, like the inclusion of Q*bert as an adorable sidekick. His sole function? To piss himself when scared (how cute! how funny!) and through a neverending slew of awkwardly timed slapstick, make us want to hunt down any copy of the game in our homes and melt them down into a fine, hardened paste – just to be on the safe side.
This is also the type of movie that should proudly fly the geek flag; sadly, director Chris Columbus and producer Sandler are less interested in giving their movie any substance, preferring to use shallow stereotypes to keep their faux-everyman bit going for a few more years. It’s completely unconvincing, and when doubled with Columbus’ inability to stop his movie derailing from its own rules (all the aliens are evil, except the ones that aren’t, and the ones that are can become good – but they’re all evil), or present a shred of believability to hook us from the start; it’s not the fact that aliens are invading Earth in the guise of video games that stops us from believing in the world of Pixels. It’s that we are supposed to believe – first – Kevin James is the President, and second, Adam Sandler is allowed to walk around the White House like it was a European hostel. Of all the players, however, Josh Gad surprisingly gets through it least unscathed; his histrionics suiting the absurd tone of the movie to a tee, and he steals most of the admittedly few laugh-worthy moments. Monaghan and Dinklage again prove their resolve as actors amid such halfwits, but why they ever chose to be stranded on a film set with these people is unclear.
There is an upside. Universally panned Sandler fare like Grown Ups 2 or Jack and Jill is awful all the way through; on a basic filmmaking level, they feel as if they were put together by five year-olds. Pixels actually has some sense of craft about it – the visuals are gorgeous, especially concerning the video game characters themselves. They look astoundingly well-designed, with a style all their own – but none of that same attention to detail transfers to any other part of the movie. And you know what, Sandler isn’t entirely awful here, despite him (most probably) being the Antichrist; the rest of the cast have also done much poorer work elsewhere. But when each of Pixel’s smaller failures are brought together, it adds up to something that’s mildly diverting at the best of times, and colossally awful at others, especially during its astoundingly lazy final act. Although the movie isn’t the utter trainwreck critics have been whining about (let’s reserve that for movies that actually deserve it – like Sandler’s next film, for instance), it does represent what a grand idea can end up as in the hands of people who shouldn’t be allowed within five feet of a film set, a movie camera, or a production studio. In fact, they shouldn’t even be let near a pen, just in case it touches paper and accidentally creates another hack screenplay. Shared nostalgia, which is at the core of Pixels’ appeal, becomes an ugly thing in the grip of Sandlercorp. But hey – at least David Spade isn’t in it.