5 out of 10
Adam Sandler as Sam Brenner
Kevin James as President Will Cooper
Josh Gad as Ludlow Lamonsoff
Peter Dinklage as Eddie Plant
Michelle Monaghan as Lieutenant Colonel Violet van Patten
Matt Lintz as Matty van Patten
Brian Cox as Admiral Porter
Jane Krakowski as Carolyn Cooper
Sean Bean as Corporal Hill
Serena Williams as Herself
Ashley Benson as Lady Lisa
Anthony Ippolito as 13 year old Sam
Jared Riley as 13 year old Will
Jacob Shinder as 8 year Ludlow
Andrew Bambridge as 13 year Eddie
Directed by Chris Columbus
There’s no denying the potency of nostalgia–it’s always easier to remember what we know we enjoyed than searching for something new amid unending disappointment–so much so that it can easily overwhelm anything it’s placed near, making it as dangerous as it is wondrous.
It’s a problem Sam Brenner (Sandler) knows well as his inability to move past his glory years as a mid-’80s videogame wunderkind has left him a disgruntled, divorced TV installer wondering if his life has truly passed him by. The answer turns out to be ‘no’ delivered in the strangest way possible when aliens, mimicking the skills and abilities of classic ’80s video game characters like Pac-Man, set their sights on Earth. Leading a crew of has-been ’80s gamers (Gad, Dinklage), Sandler takes on the games and the seductiveness of nostalgia and tries to find out if either he or Pixels has anything more to offer than old memories of better times.
The answer to that is no as well as Pixels is a schizophrenic mess, in turns entertaining and annoying, as if Galaxy Quest had been made by people without any understanding of humor.
Covering up those sorts of flaws is part of the attractiveness of nostalgia in the first place, especially for mass entertainment, and it does have its uses. The reminder of old joys can carry an audience long enough for filmmakers to experiment with other elements, trying to find something just as good (or more often good enough) to move on with.
Unfortunately, director Chris Columbus is fighting against gravity here as the script co-written by long-time Sandler cohort Tim Herlihy (based off Patrick Jean’s visually inventive short film and re-written by Timothy Dowling) is perfectly comfortable staying with what works as with what Sandler has been comfortable making for the past decade.
Sandler is once again a blue collar underachiever who comments drily on the inanity going on around him, an action which continually sets him apart from the humor rather than taking part in it the way Gad and Dinklage manage. It allows him to always come off as the coolest guy in the room, even when wearing neon orange shorts, which increasingly seems to be the point of any character Sandler plays and is helped here by his video game skills being the only thing standing between the Earth and destruction.
Though it doesn’t hurt that his best friend (once again played by Kevin James) grew up to be President of the United States, which is probably the most unbelievable thing in a movie about living video games trying to destroy the planet.
To be fair, it’s worked for him (a lot) in the past so it’s understandable he stays with the horse what brought him, but it can also only work for so long before the cracks in the appealing façade start show the rotting foundation within. The fact is, if you have seen an Adam Sandler movie at any point in the last ten years you’ve seen most of what Pixels has to offer.
Most of the jokes are retreads of Sandler and company’s particular brand of humor, giving us bits like the President sassing an unruly White House reporter (and letting the other reporters pile on) as if he were a high school student delivering a report, or Sandler nicknaming the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
It’s particularly noticeable when James appears, allowing the two to retreat back into the humiliating straight man tag team they have been perfecting since I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. And it’s entirely possible this does still work for someone, though I submit even those people probably aren’t prepared to laugh at the sight of Q-Bert peeing himself in terror.
Fortunately the “jokes” have to make room for the video game battles – which are played more or less straight and benefit mightily from director Chris Columbus (one of the few behind the camera talents not part of Sandler’s regular crew) – as Brenner and his team race against the clock to win three battles before the aliens do, with the victor deciding the fate of the Earth.
If there is a saving grace to Pixels, it is the influence of Columbus who seems to realize that tried and true are a well a storyteller can return to only so many times before the good feelings fade and the lack of anything more becomes impossible to ignore. Much of that is from the video game battles themselves which match much of the promise of the film’s premise. They are the showpiece and the only time Pixels really comes alive – particularly the Pac-Man car chase which, if not funny, is exciting to watch – but you have to wait through a lot of “comedy” to get to them.
Columbus has also paired Sandler’s usual crew with Josh Gad as a former wunderkind-turned-conspiracy nut and Peter Dinklage as Sandler’s ego-driven video game nemesis, who together provide what saving grace of Pixels’ receives. They have the best lines, the best line readings and the best ad libs and together represent 90% of the jokes which actually work.
The result is a schizophrenic viewing experience–as dreary and retread as it is fun and inventive–which is occasionally exciting but never as funny as it thinks it is. And it gets less exciting and inventive as it goes along. When the son of Brenner’s gal Friday (Monaghan) is taken by the aliens in a last ditch ploy, Sandler and his team must travel into the belly of the beast and beat the aliens on their home turf if they’re to have any chance at stopping the alien video game menace once and for all.
What could and should be the most intriguing and inventive portion of the film–living people inside a live-action version of Donkey Kong–is as formula and pattern-driven as the old arcade machines Brenner used to dominate with ease. Sandler’s own films, if they continue their pattern, seem destined for a similar fate as Brenner’s old video games, or any other nostalgia driver – buried in the past with those who accidentally come across them in the future wondering how anyone enjoyed them in the first place.