Can this movie even exist? It obviously can—and yet that doesn't come close to answering why.
Directed by Chris Columbus
Written by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling (based on the short film by Patrick Jean)
With Adam Sandler (Brenner), Josh Gad (Ludlow), Peter Dinklage (Eddie), Michelle Monaghan (Violet), and Kevin James (Cooper)
Spoiler alert: mild
I know it might be hard for younger filmgoers to believe, but as a time traveler from the last century, I can tell you with some authority: yes, there really was once such a time as the Golden Age of Adam Sandler. Let's take a trip down memory lane.
From the platform of his unforgettable tenure on Saturday Night Live (and perhaps with the help of his goofy but enjoyable comedy album, They're All Gonna Laugh At You), Adam Sandler launched his feature film career in earnest in 1994, beginning with the loveable mental defective Pip in the rock-and-roll caper Airheads (still probably Brendan Fraser's greatest triumph). Sandler would carry his shtick with consummate grace right up to the end of the millennium, first delivering a pair of back-to-back starmaking turns in Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, then following them up with the gentle romantic comedy The Wedding Singer and that unaccountably funny piece of comic hicksploitation, The Waterboy. He finally petered out with the anodyne Big Daddy in 1999, which looks and feels like the work of a performer who has exhausted his bag of tricks, and wants to move on. (In the meantime, however, his cameo as Satan in Norm Macdonald's gloriously mean-spirited Dirty Work was arguably the very pinnacle of his whole comedic career.)
And that seemed to be the end of it: after Big Daddy, Sandler did the risibly unfunny (and manifestly unsuccessful) Little Nicky, from which any return seemed impossible. But then he made Punch Drunk Love in 2002, which is surely as wonderful as anything from his mid-90s heydey, even if I think every last one of us can agree it doesn't really count. In any event, his career was revitalized, if not his persona, and his next movie was Mr. Deeds, which made it pretty clear that there was not going to be any Silver Age of Adam Sandler. After that, I don't think I've seen a single one of his movies, and having been warned by many voices to stay far away from them, I don't imagine I'm missing very much. (Though I'll still give him credit for producing David Spade's Joe Dirt, even if I'm afraid that what this really means is that I'm exactly the kind of easily-pleased idiot that you shouldn't listen to.)
Now, let's understand one another: I recite my history with Sandler to let you know that I hold no specific grudge against the man, the way the vast majority of the real critical establishment seems to—indeed, his first three movies are permanent fixtures in my personal canon, and there's probably nothing that anybody could ever say that would reduce Airheads, Billy Madison, and Happy Gilmore in my esteem. No, I simply grew bored with his increasingly-tired Adam Sandler Thing, and so he and I parted ways amicably, seemingly never to meet one another again. But here we are anyway, and, much to my despair, it turns out that if Pixels is actually emblematic of Sandler's output these past twelve years—as many good folks say it is—then the man deserves pretty much every last little bit of the contempt and disdain that's been thrown his way. And good God, is that saying something, given how very much contempt and disdain for him there is!
Pixels, as I'm absolutely certain you already know, is the feature length expansion of Patrick Jean's jokey little short film, which does Jean no favors, I'm certain. Anyway, the idea behind Pixels, in its most basic form, is that classic 80s games have come to life, and have declared war upon humanity. (This very same idea was previously handled in the great Futurama episode, "Anthology of Interest II," in the segment "Raiders of the Lost Arcade," and it was pretty funny, but that's probably because Futurama is funny, and populated with likeable, funny characters.)
Pixels steals that premise wholesale, which is Pixels' first mistake, because mixing the basic idea (evil arcade icons!) with a dumbassed alien invasion plot is not likely to work in a feature film, and, lo, it does not. The entire experience never escapes the set of incredibly opaque rules that govern the contest between us Earthlings and the aliens who believe we have challenged them. (NASA shot a VHS tape of kids playing Donkey Kong and Centipede and such into space back in the early 1980s, and the aliens thought it was real, and therefore you can count Galaxy Quest amongst the number of awesome things which Pixels rips off, too.) Anyway, even on this most basic action-adventure level, everything that happens serves, at best, only to poorly motivate the theoretically-nostalgic spectacle of 3D-rendered video game characters wreaking havoc upon our civilization.
And this would almost still be okay, but then Pixels makes its second through 857th mistakes, which amount to (essentially) every last character, every last plot point, and nearly every last line of dialogue in the whole fucking film.
When the aliens come, our last hope consists of the three men who once competed to be the greatest arcade gamers of all time, namely Brenner, Ludlow, and Eddie—to whom I shall refer as "Adam Sandler," "Josh Gad," and "Peter Dinklage," much as I shall refer to all Pixels' "characters" by their actors' names, for that is how deeply disaffected by this thing I am. All of them, although once young and idealistic (except Dinklage, I suppose, who starts off incredibly dickish already), have grown up to be various loser archetypes. Sandler is a technician for a thinly-veiled analogue of Best Buy's Geek Squad (and the revelations about one Geek Squad member's voyeuristic hidden camera scheme would fit right the fuck in with this film); Gad lives in his mother's basement, splitting his time equally between conspiracy theories and masturbating to the pixelated hot girl game character he fell in love with in his youth; and Dinklage is in prison, for stuff. Luckily for Earth, however, our hero Brenner is good buddies with President Kevin James.
Reading the words "President Kevin James" should indicate the naked contempt this movie has for its audience, as well as the lengths to which Sandler will go to give his friends work; but it should be further noted that Pixels isn't remotely done with impressing upon you that Kevin James is our President, for Pixels either takes place in the future—of which I noticed no dispositive indication—or Pixels is telling us that President Kevin James defeated President Barack Obama in an election, because President Barack Obama is explicitly mentioned to still exist in this universe. This is the kind of out-of-left-field bullshit that needs to be (at most) a one-scene joke, and—for best results—it needs to be a one-scene joke in an Airplane!-style out-and-out slapstick farce. And if you're not going to let it sit on the margins, then it needs to be its own whole stupid movie, which I have to admit is a movie I might even conceivably watch. I would title it after a line a girl scout utters in this movie: The President Can't Read!
Anyway, there is also a man with a cyberbrain in this movie. More of exactly this may have actually gotten Pixels to the level it needed to be funny, or at least weird enough to be simply fun.
And yet, probably not. Pixels has its moments—there's a fine bit of physical comedy with Gad where he falls out of a truck, and the line "Kennedy shot first!" is funny even out of context, whereas "Can I kill it?" is delivered in such a way that I laughed. And I will even admit there are the briefest flashes of the old Adam Sandler sarcasm that reminded me why I once found him charming. But when I say "Pixels has its moments," bear in mind that I believe I've listed pretty much all of them, just now, and it only took a small paragraph.
But Pixels was never going to be very funny, not with this script, driven by what I am made to understand is the new Sandler style of overt bullying and general shittiness, exemplified most hair-raisingly by its aggressive commitment to reducing women to absolutely nothing but bodies that have three potentially-pleasurable holes in them. It is not only the most objectifying attitude I think I've ever seen in any theatrically released feature film—even most of the porn I've ever seen is still more concerned women as living, thinking human beings than Pixels is. I'll remind you that this a movie which was marketed as family entertainment, and was released in the Year of Our Lord 2015, which is to say about a full thirty years after this kind of thing became humiliatingly retrograde. Oh, Pixels may traffick heavily in nostalgia for the 1980s, but once you discount all the various 1980s comedies with actual rape, even that decade's cinematic output doesn't average out to equal the egregious sexism of this film.
Jesus, even the fact that all of Pixels' women are rendered trophies (in most cases literally) practically flies under the radar here, at least once you've been bludgeoned into submission by a nearly-psychotic commitment to sorting every female who appears in the movie, and many who are not, into the categories of "fuckable" and "unfuckable," often right to their Goddamned faces, with at least two of the nominal slams delivered by Noted Fatass Kevin James. And I wouldn't be so mean myself, but the movie opens that door and I'm angry at it. And poor Michelle Monaghan—Pixels casts her as a scientist! Pixels, you see, is progressive!—she is actually acting in this fucking thing, and it turns out that this is just a terrible, terrible choice, because it's something that meshes with the rest of the film not at all. Meanwhile, Josh Gad is "acting," in the sense that he inhabits his character as a sex offender who simply hasn't been caught yet; and there's no way around it, that aspect of his character is pretty much explicitly laid out in this movie's script. I could go on and on about this, obviously. But let's just conclude by saying that Jane Krakowski is the best sport in all Hollywood for allowing herself to be cast in this movie, and thereby fulfilling her 30 Rock character's dire premonition that she would one day be relegated to the role of the wife that Kevin James was tired of having sex with. (She did not predict that he would be President, of course, because that would be fucking stupid.)
So, then, what about those action sequences? They're all right, I guess, although I'll point out that it is fully 45 minutes into Pixels before the arcade-inspired setpieces finally begin; and there are only three of any note in the whole movie; and the first one, a version of Centipede, kind of sucks. The Pac-man one that follows it starts off incredibly dumb, even by Pixels standards (the creator of Pac-man attempts to talk to his "son," a scene that makes no sense at all given the actual premise of this movie), but at least it goes to some interesting places once it takes into account that our real world is three-dimensional. The last one, a Donkey Kong riff, is actually kind of bad-ass, and I honestly hate to admit that the use of "We Will Rock You" makes it feel kind of cool. Seriously, I'm embarrassed by that.
But really, not nearly as embarrassed as Adam Sandler, director Chris Columbus, and everyone else involved in this travesty ought to be. Remember how I've been beating the drum for 2015 being the single worst year for film in decades? Well, my friends, I give you Pixels.