Director: Chris Columbus
Stars: Adam Sandler, Kevin James
1 Globe (out of 5)
The key image in “Pixels” is Q*bert urinating. It’s not that it’s offensive or anything, but it is stupid — below lowest common denominator, existing only because someone ordered a poor programmer with crippling student debt to make a classic arcade character pixel-pee. It’s everything that’s wrong with the film in one surreal, can’t-unsee image: unlimited resources and a pretty good premise in the hands of people who just want to make bathroom jokes. Naturally one of those people is Adam Sandler. His latest vehicle — in which his team expanded upon a delightful two-minute French short — depicts a war between humankind and an alien race that has adopted the form of blocky early ’80s video games. But the real battle is between the high-concept, effects-heavy blockbuster and the slovenly, lazy, by this point arrogant cinema of its star — two things that go together like nuts and gum, which is to say because some overrepresented demographic likes them both.
Sandler looks either comatose or irritated, depending on the moment, as Sam, once an arcade god whose defeat at a championship by a cocksure joystick king (played in adulthood by Peter Dinklage, with a dye-blonde mullet, delivering all his lines in an exhausting asshole twang) so crushed him that he grew up to be a sadsack gizmo repairman. (Meanwhile, his bestie, played by Kevin James, became a president who resembles Bush, but as a reluctant hawk.) Sam finds his services required when belligerent E.T.s mistake a satellite of old video games as a declaration of war, challenging earthlings to a series of duels using the likes of Centipede, Space Invaders and, in a twist that’s either clever or disrespectful, or both, even good guy Pac-Man.
What follows is a series of battles, and Sandler admittedly does perk up once he’s running around with giant guns, zapping low-res baddies. Director Chris Columbus — once upon a time the screenwriter of “Gremlins” — delivers some (mostly half-hearted) attempts to deliver the madcap goods, but usually his star’s dragging the film down to his sleepy/annoyed level. Sandler used to segue between stoned slacker and fulminating hothead; even when a respectable type like Paul Thomas Anderson wasn’t exploiting it, for the masterpiece “Punch-Drunk Love,” it was a not un-entertaining shtick.
Over the years, as attempts to break from the mould failed at the box office, and as his fanbase repeatedly rewarded work that required little to almost no effort, he’s evolved into the tired, mumbly, pissy performer he is in “Pixels.” He doesn’t scream anymore, and he can barely muster a decent insult. An early scene shows him doing what he loves to do best: knock down snooty authority figures. But the one-liners aren’t very good — he calls a woman with gray hair “Gandalf,” which eh — and he utters them with so little enthusiasm that he seems to be remote-controlled. It’s as though he was pissed he had to show up at all, especially in a film that requires more than merely hanging out with his friends at Kmart.
And so, thanks to the Sandler cabal’s input, “Pixels” feels like two different films haphazardly spliced together — like “Independence Day” cut into last year’s leaden “Blended.” Early on Columbus toggles between brief, tantalizing scenes excitedly setting up the premise and the long, glacial, decidedly nonexcited comedy stylings of his star, which has the same nondescript, draggy look of any Sandler outing. Admittedly once the fights happen, the film sporadically springs to almost passable life. (There’s also a surreally amusing bit where Pac-Man’s creator, Toru Iwatani — played, alas, by Denis Akiyama — delivers a lengthy, heartfelt speech to his sadly evil child.)
But there are only three actual fights, one inside an otherwise stiff melee that doesn’t blend video game aesthetics and the real with the dizzying fluidity that Edgar Wright brought to “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the Universe.” That film had a breezy visual syntax, as well as wit and apparent joy. “Pixels” has lifeless comedy, plus its star’s arrogance, plus its star’s rancid, depressing worldview, where dim, insecure man-children are constantly undermined and oppressed by people who, like, think they’re better than they are — a slobs-vs.-snobs mentality left over, moldy and gross, from the ’70s. Sam’s love interest is a stuck-up military specialist he dubs “Snobby,” whose only saving grace, as it were, is that she’s hot and will eventually find him charming. Brainiacs who aren’t hot but do know big words are Sandler films’ most favorite object of ridicule, even though its hero here is actually a savant who kills at video games because he can quickly recognize and react to patterns. In real life Sandler now cares about nothing but shilling to his base, who are among the only people left who know who Frogger is anyway.
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