‘Pixels’ Isn’t as Bad as Expected, Still Isn’t Good

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If you ever want to see a look of existential dread on the face of a film critic, assign them a film produced by Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions. Sandler’s production company have worked tirelessly to build up a reputation as the purveyors of dreadful cinema, relying on celebrity cameos, pop culture references, and product placement in the place of actual jokes. Naturally there’s a certain sense of dread that comes with Pixels, the biggest production that Happy Madison has undertaken. Based upon a two-minute short by Patrick Jean, the trailer for Pixels was longer than the short that inspired it. Almost solely by virtue of rock bottom expectations, Pixels isn’t a good movie but it’s not the absolutely painful dreck that is typically under the Happy Madison banner.

Pixels is about a mysterious alien race that mistakes signals containing classic video games as a challenge for war. But these signals were sent into space in 1982, so all the video games attacking are classic arcade games. Earth’s only hope to defeat these Space Invaders (get it?) are competitive gamers from 1982. There’s Sam Brenner (Sandler), who was able to detect patterns in games from the moment he played them; Ludlow Lamsonoff (Josh Gad), a conspiracy-minded gamer known as the “Wonderkid”; Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage), the arrogant gamer who defeated Brenner in the 1982 championships; and Will Cooper (Kevin James), Brenner’s best friend who has ascended into the White House, though he’s not a popular president. With the help of Lieutenant Colonel Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), this new team dubbed “Arcaders” will have to defeat the pixelated foes from outer space.

Director Chris Columbus, best known for the Home Alone movies and the first two Harry Potter films, brings something that has seemingly been missing from most of Sandler’s work over the past decade – effort. While Columbus isn’t able to do anything to elevate the woeful script by Timothy Dowling and Tim Herlihy, he does bring a bit of visual bravado that you’d never find from Happy Madison stable of directors like Dennis Dugan or Frank Coraci.

Working together for the umpteenth time are Adam Sandler and Kevin James, and, for once, neither seems to be phoning it in. Early in the film, Sandler shows more life on screen since Funny People, though he quickly reverts back to typical subdued form. Kevin James is inoffensive as the bumbling president, but I can’t help but feel that the story of how this buffoon got into the White House would be more interesting than the story of Pixels, as long as it’s not in the hands of the Happy Madison gang. Among the newcomers to the Happy Madison family is Josh Gad, whose rise as a comedic actor must have been facilitated by a deal with the devil. Perhaps Gad has not found the right role for his talents, but he is undoubtedly one of the most grating comedic actors of recent memory, simultaneously shrill and unfunny. The best performance in Pixels goes to the tragically underutilized Peter Dinklage. As Eddie Plant, who is loosely based on real life arcade game champion Billy Mitchell, Dinklage embraces the underlying absurdity of the film, taking his role to 11. For reasons that elude me, he doesn’t show up until nearly halfway through the movie.

As briefly mentioned earlier, the writing of Pixels is the greatest deficiency. None of the characters here experience sacrifice, change, or anything resembling a character arc. Sandler’s Sam is basically seeking validation for a 33-year-old injustice over video games. James’ President Cooper only sees his approval ratings rise by means of being a wartime president, not through leadership; all he does is call up his old childhood friend. Dinklage’s Plant is exposed as a cheater, but faces no consequences and gets all his desires upon the conclusion. Hands down the worst, Gad’s Lamsonoff is rewarded at the end with a real life version of the video game woman he’s pined for over the last three decades. A smarter movie would’ve had his desires for a beautiful mute woman with no agency as a commentary on video game culture’s handling of women, instead it’s his reward. Even the attempts to have Michelle Monaghan’s character be a strong, smart woman are undermined by having the character obsessed with the 19-year-old Pilates instructor that stole her husband.

By no means can I recommend Pixels as a good movie, but by virtue of the low expectations that Adam Sandler brings, it at least seems like it’s a brief respite from the overwhelming apathy that has driven his more recent films. You’d be better off renting King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters, a documentary about the real life quest for Donkey Kong supremacy, than sitting through Pixels. But Chris Columbus is able to allow the mostly inoffensive neon move by at a brisk pace, avoiding becoming another painful Sandler slog. Sure, I didn’t like Pixels, but I didn’t actively hate it with all my being. For an Adam Sandler movie, that’s an amazing achievement.

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