The good news is that Pixels, an Adam Sandler film not really being marketed as an Adam Sandler film, is actually a much better film than its current 19% rating on Rotten Tomatoes would indicate and it's certainly far better than that Rex Reed wannabe MovieBob proclaimed in his viral but mostly histrionic video scathing of the film.
The bad news, however, is that Pixels is still an Adam Sandler film with Sandler still doing the same shtick he's been doing since he was a young comic in his early 20's trying to make a name for himself by firing off a series of commercially successful, critically trashed man-child motion pictures that were goofy, innocent, harmlessly fun and even a little endearing. Sandler had a knack for tapping into America's inner-manchild and making us laugh at ourselves with a wink and a grin and more than a few fart jokes. The problem is that Sandler is no longer in his 20's and what was funny 20+ years ago is starting to come off as seriously arrested development bordering on downright creepy. In recent years, Sandler has been most successful, if not commercially at least critically, when he's broken out of that sophomoric shell of shame and worked with a filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson who could rein in his most base tendencies and direct all that juvenile humor and underlying rage in a different and far more satisfying direction. There's a reason that most of Sandler's recent publicity has been scathingly negative commentary about his alleged stereotyping of Native Americans or his alleged objectifying of female co-stars - it's because when you're 20 you can get away with using "Nice hooters!" as a pick-up line, but when you're still doing it at nearly 50-years-old people start to get just a little uncomfortable.
As a longtime Sandler fan, having only truly trashed a couple of his films, even I'll admit that over the past few years it has become increasingly difficult to defend a filmography that has become increasingly stale, tired, bitter and filled with directionless comic rage.
Pixels doesn't solve the problem. How could a feature film based upon a 2 1/2 minute short film truly be expected to solve anything? It does, however, offer up one of Sandler's most vintage Sandleresque films in several years. It's a film that was almost destined to receive scathing reviews from critics, yet it's also a film that may very well prove to satisfy those Sandler fans who've been waiting and hoping for a Sandler return to form.
In short, Pixels is a film that aims low and manages to hit its target with surprising regularity.
Of course, director Chris Columbus would likely argue against the idea that Pixels is aiming low. The director has gone on record to say that his goal with Pixels was to create a film that harkened back to those lightly adventurous films of the 80's like Gremlins, The Goonies, and others. Columbus, of course, had more than a little bit to do with those films' successes and has always had a gift for creating entertaining and sentimental films that pleased America even when they didn't always please critics. The nostalgia is practically built right in for Pixels, a film that waxes nostalgically about 80's arcade games and the lovable nerds who played them.
Sandler stars as Sam Brenner, a former Pac-Man World Champion whose glory days are clearly behind him. He's now an electronics installer whose reality has never come even remotely close to reaching his potential. The same is not true for his longtime best bud Cooper (Kevin James), whose childhood was spent mostly on the sidelines watching Sam get all the glory but who is now the President of the United States. Sam and Cooper, along with rival Eddie (Peter Dinklage) and almost adorable oddball Ludlow (Josh Gad), were such legendary gamers in their day that NASA sent a video of their playing into space. Fast forward 30+ years and Earth learns the hard way that the video was received, but the video has been wildly misinterpreted. As a result, Earth is under an alien attack with the aliens turning those beloved 80's games into weapons of mass destruction.
Somehow, it's both ingenious and incredibly lame.
Faced with the potential for the annihilation of the Earth, Sam, Ludlow, and Eddie are called into action by the President in the hope that they can do what the U.S. military cannot do - fend off an attack launched in the style of classic arcade games like Centipede, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and others with glimpses of such lesser known classics as Burger Time, Tetris, Paperboy, and a few classic 80's characters.
If this all sounds frivolous and silly, well that's the point.
I mean, c'mon. Adam Sandler has been making movies since 1989. With the possible exceptions of Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, when was the last time you went into an Adam Sandler film actually expecting a thought-provoking motion picture?
Pixels goofy, mindless, incohesive and frequently disjointed cinema that also happens to have enough Vintage Sandler moments that if you can surrender yourself to it you may find yourself having a much better time than you ever expected. Chris Columbus has never really been considered one of America's best directors and there's no question that Pixels is on the lower end of his directorial spectrum, but there's a definite argument that Pixels is a pretty good example of what happens when an Adam Sandler film is directed by someone who can actually direct.
I'm not looking at you, Dennis Dugan.
While I was never what could be considered an arcade rat, Pixels does a fine job of capturing that wide-eyed awe that one experienced in the early days of video gaming when you still pumped quarters into video games at your local video arcade and looked massively forward to notching your three initials on that video screen for everyone to see. This happens not so much because of anything resembling fine acting, but because for the most part Pixels plays right into how we already see our main quartet. Sandler's the lovable nerd whom you know darn well will get the girl, in this case a White House military consultant played by Michelle Monaghan. Peter Dinklage is the antisocial delinquent. Josh Gad is the loner conspiracy theorist. Kevin James is an adorable President with sinking approval ratings.
In other words, all of our main players play characters they could handle in their sleep. In moments, they seem like they are sleeping but for the most part Pixels is fully awake even if it isn't quite firing on all cylinders.
Pixels is available in 3-D, though even the most hardcore 80's gamer and/or Sandler fan doesn't really have much of a reason to go that route. Because Columbus has chosen to be fairly faithful to the more pixelated gaming of the 1980's, even the film's larger than life graphics never really achieve anything resembling full-on immersion.
Still, I have to say it. It has been a while since I've enjoyed watching Adam Sandler being Adam Sandler. It has been a while since I've truly enjoyed watching his bevy of man-children just acting stupid and having a good time reliving childhood fantasies with heart, humor and silliness. Despite all its flaws, Pixels still made me laugh and it still made me smile. Sandler, while still coming off at times as rather tired, seemed less jaded here and more willing to just have a good time with his buddies. The mullet-wearing Dinklage, known to most Americans these days for his work on Game of Thrones, really steals the show here and the film would have been even more successful were it more centered around him.
These days, it seems like picking on Adam Sandler is the the fashionable thing to do whether you're a ranting movie critic, a Razzie voter or any number of other people who've made the actor a popular target. Pixels isn't going to break the cycle, but it's a film that deserves a chance from Sandler fans and from those who will willingly give themselves to a film short on plot and long on Sandler's vintage humor and charm. Ultimately, Pixels is a flawed film that serves up just enough of a good time to make it worth your while.
Besides, I think we can agree that Pixels isn't the worst film to feature a centipede this year. Tom Six holds that title.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic