‘Pixels’ (2015) Movie Review

Josh Gad runs from Pac-Man, the real star of Pixels

Columbia Pictures

Even as an Adam Sandler/Kevin James-vehicle, Pixels deserves to be more inspired. The arcade-loving, ’80s-centric action-comedy transitioned to the big screen from Patrick Jean‘s inventive world-domination-by-8-bits short film wields the fine set pieces, tech resources and token-required games to earn a top score. But Sandler and his team don’t even attempt to advance to the next level, constantly drawing on the comedian’s trademark sophomoric cheat codes to hastily produce what’s essentially the poor man’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, global-annihilation movie.

Make no mistake: this is a Happy Madison production through-and-through. Minus extensive pratfall jokes with James or unnecessary Rob Schneider or Steve Buscemi pop-ups, almost every check mark from the Sandler production list is marked. Cheap insults directed towards one physical trait from different supporting characters? Check. Sandler getting the out-of-his-league girl (in this case, Michelle Monaghan) because he’s our main slubby do-gooder? You bet. In-your-face nostalgic references and songs from the late ’70s/early ’80s? Naturally. Tiresome product placement? Uh-huh. Respected high-profile people shoehorned into unnecessary, often painful cameos? Of course.

Alright, not all of them hurt. If there’s one thing Pixels accomplished, it’s proving Pac-Man creator Tōru Iwatani was a gung-ho, enthusiastic comic force waiting for his spotlight. As for the others, they’re either quick-buck check-ins earning their audible sighs (could you leave Dan Aykroyd and Serena Williams well enough alone? I know they got compensated, but they have better things to do. Okay, maybe not the former, but he’s still an original “SNL” vet, dammit) or simply a waste of good acting talent. Seriously, why bother casting Sean Bean as SAS Officer Corporal Hill or Jane Krakowski as First Lady Jane Cooper if they can’t even exposit exposition, let alone crack a joke?

Screenwriters Timothy Dowling (Just Go With It) and regular Sandler scribe Tim Herlihy, along with director Chris Columbus (Home Alone), constantly take the tongue-in-cheek route and never expect a straight-faced response from the audience.

It’s one thing to have your plot centered on a group of faded arcade nuts (played by Sandler, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage) becoming humanity’s only salvation when an advanced alien race interprets (and then mimics) time-capsuled video game relics like Galaga and Centipede as a proposed act of war and expect total believability. It’s quite something else, though, to have us unabashedly believe James as Barack Obama‘s successor, President Will Cooper, and that he’d constantly have time to grab a beer and shoot the shit with his repairman childhood best friend. Worse yet, if you’re going to go the extra mile, why not take advantage of it? As refreshing as it is to have James play it straight, why, of all times, do it now?

Regardless of what Paul Blart‘s winning political platform was, this gets to why Pixels doesn’t work. Yeah, it’s a silly, lighthearted plot, but shrugging your shoulders half-hearted to explain everything doesn’t necessarily make you self-aware of your goofiness. There needs to be more pride in the work. I understand Sandler is at a point where he doesn’t care much anymore, but as the movie continues to sputter its comedy between breezy, family-friendly summer adventure and frat-boy, lowbrow PG-13 comedy — in addition to stuffing in action beat-after-action beat — the disheveled tone kills any of its potential momentum.

It’s fun loving but can’t keep the laughs contagious, and it’s overbearingly mean-spirited tone makes this come across more ugly and callous than it needed to be. Particularly when some of your most talented cast members, namely Gad and Dinklage, are unfortunately reduced to awkward banter and disingenuous, or downright inconsistent, one-note personalities suited to be just whatever the movie wants at any given moment. Be loud and incessantly juvenile or cheeky, happy-go-lucky family fare or a gleefully dumb action romp, but pick and choose. Not taking yourself too seriously doesn’t cut it.

It’s not all bad, though. When Pixels firmly interacts with its video game-inspired set pieces — the giant Pac-Man race in the heart of New York City in particular really captures all the glee and wonder this should’ve had readily — it’s pretty fun. Columbus doesn’t patronize the audience as much as, say, Frank Coraci or Dennis Dugan through overstretched appearances from Sandler’s friends, and he’s conscious enough to keep things fast and moving. He’s also benefited by a proven, punchy premise, which makes this more entertaining and watchable than any other comedy Sandler’s front-lined these past five years.

What makes Pixels better than most Sandler movies, however, is also what makes it more disappointing. It has the will power and branding rights to come together just as brazenly as The Lego Movie did. The cast — also including the always-wonderful Brian Cox as Admiral Porter, whose character is disappointingly regulated to simply not liking “nerds” — should make this pop, and the VFX wizardly could make this bounce higher. Columbus also gives his movie the scale of widespread mayhem to almost put this on par with the original Ghostbusters‘ city-wise derision of goofy panic from its last third.

By appealing primarily to the lowest common-dominator and the most tiresome clichés in the main star/producer’s filmography, though, Pixels stalls mightily. That’s probably not shocking to some, but it still continues Sandler’s disappointing should-have-been better line-up of late, kickstarted with last year’s Men, Women & Children and The Cobbler and not likely to cease with December’s The Ridiculous Six. Then again, maybe this clunky, quarter-munching machine wasn’t meant to be taken out the closet in the first place.