1. Pixels is a perfectly acceptable idea for a movie that has unfortunately been Sandlerized. Based off a famous short film from 2010 that you can watch below—and you probably should just watch now, for free, thereby saving yourself the trip to the theater—it revolves around aliens who receive a time capsule from 1984 and decide to attack the earth in the form of ’80s video games, specifically Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, and Centipede, with cameo appearances from Q*bert and Frogger. This would seem to be either a) a clever idea for a short film, but not enough to sustain a feature film, or b) in the hands of an adventurous director and cast, perhaps a way to mine our cultural obsession with nostalgia, and how it might connect with our conflicted relationship with technology. But a terrible idea—an immediate way to disembowel the whole concept, in fact—is to hand it over to the Happy Madison crew and just let them dick around with it. Adam Sandler and his crew are the only people who could put less thought and effort into a 100-minute feature film than the original filmmaker put into a two-and-a-half-minute short.
2. You might not think this is a Sandler movie at first. Sure, he’s in it, but the guy makes two kinds of movies. There are the ones where he and his gaggle of friends (Kevin James, Nick Swardson, Allen Covert, Rob Schneider, David Spade, even Robert Smigel) all get together and seemingly slap something together over a long weekend; you can usually tell these by the number of scenes that feature Sandler wearing sweatpants. Then there are the ones from legitimate filmmakers—even some good ones—who, inspired by Paul Thomas Anderson’s incredible Punch Drunk-Love (and trying to get their projects financed by casting a well-known star), attempt to work with Sandler’s inherent limitations, or at least around them, in order to get across their specific visions. Some of these sort of work (Funny People), some of them are harmless misfires (Reign Over Me), and some of them are as horrible, if horrible in a different way, as your usual Sandler fare (Men, Women & Children, Spanglish, the truly jaw-dropping The Cobbler). But the difference is that those movies try.
Whereas Sandler’s own movies, the Happy Madison productions, turn sloth into an art form of its own: They feel like an ongoing contest to see how little actual effort can be expended and still have the movie somehow get finished. (One of these days, the credits are just going to run at the 45-minute mark, and Sandler and Spade are going to wave to the camera and crawl back into bed and the movie will be over. Maybe that’s what the Netflix contract is.) You might think Pixels, which is directed by Chris Columbus and has enough special effects in the trailer to at least match the craft-services budget on a Happy Madison film, is the good kind of Sandler movies, a way for the star attraction to play a normal lead in a big-budget summer action movie, a sort of Ghostbusters. Oh, but if only that were the case. This was written by Tim Herlihy, a longtime Sandler collaborator, and it has been entirely tailored to the Sandler aesthetic. This is Happy Madison in disguise. This is Grown-Ups 3: Video-Game Camp.
3. Thus, the promise of the short film—the cathartic thrill, really, of watching Pac-Man played on the streets of New York, or Tetris being played with actual buildings collapsing each time you finish a level—is eradicated in short order by a familiar, sleepy languor. Sandler plays Brenner, a former arcade superstar back in the mid-’80s whose life, predictably, has become a failure: Now he works at an electronics store, in the “nerd” department. (Honestly, it’s probable the script only gives him this job so he can spend half the movie wearing shorts.) When the aliens arrive, Sandler is called in by the president of the United States, a childhood friend (of course) who, fortunately for humanity, understands that Brenner is the only man who can save us all. Oh, and the president is played by Kevin James, because obviously he is. They end up teaming with two other star players (Peter Dinklage and Josh Gad, who give the movie the only real spark it ever musters), and together attempt to beat the aliens at their own games and save humanity.
I’ve just described the plot with a lot more urgency and energy than the movie does. As with all Bad Sandler movies, it mostly just meanders from one scene to another, with occasional jokes about other nationalities (the Japanese get it the most here), how crazy and cruel those wacky ladies can be (but hey, can’t live without ’em, right fellas?), and some random celebrity cameos (you’ll like Serena Williams a lot more in that HBO movie). The whole thing just sort of sputters and flops around the screen, and next thing you know, not only has the possibility of the premise been frittered away, you’ve actually forgotten what the movie was supposed to be about at all. By the time Dan Patrick shows up for his ritualistic cameo, there’s no longer any question about it: This is Pure Sandler, through and through.
4. What’s particularly frustrating is that this concept—of our video-game icons coming to life and interacting with the real world—was done splendidly just three years ago in Wreck-It Ralph, which featured cameos from some of the same characters. You can tell the difference pretty quickly: In Ralph, Q*bert is a sad, sympathetic figure, left homeless by children’s increased indifference to his game; here, he is essentially a puppy before he turns into a hot girl and has sex with Josh Gad. (Offscreen, mercifully.) This movie has no respect or affection for any of these games, or the era they represent, or how they might relate to the games and culture we have today. (The movie keeps using the word “gamer” without seeming to quite understand what it means.) That’s another thing that’s great about the short: It obviously values the games it’s depicting, and isn’t just trotting them out so we can all say, “Whoa, look, Galaga!” Not here. Honestly, there isn’t much evidence here to show Sandler or Columbus or anyone else has ever played any of these games, or any video games, ever. Weirdly, as much of a slack actor as Sandler is, he’s unable to even convincingly portray a sedentary video-game enthusiast. Even playing the games seems to require more energy that he cares to expend.
5. And it keeps coming back to Sandler, doesn’t it? Look, Happy Gilmore makes me laugh like an idiot still today, and his performance in Punch-Drunk Love is genuinely nervy and taut. (I loved him so much in that one that I sat through Mr. Deeds, his next film, just in case something had turned. It was for naught.) But it’s one thing to dork around with his overgrown frat pals in Grown-Ups 2, a movie so plotless that it’s almost experimental. It’s another thing to take a smart idea, something that could legitimately work as a tongue-in-cheek action movie, and trod all over it in your flip-flops and basketball shorts. This is yet another Sandler vanity project in a career that’s becoming nothing but. There’s a scene late in the film when Michelle Monaghan (who plays Sandler’s love interest, obviously) sees Sandler at a black-tie dinner at the White House (with President Kevin James, remember). Her eyes widen. “You dress up pretty sharp in that tux,” she says, and she means it, and he tries to look modest with a lopsided who-me? grin, and you remember Sandler’s best friend wrote this thing, and you find yourself praying that Dig Dug would show up and blow up everyone onscreen.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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