The amazing thing about Pixels is that it feels simultaneously lazy and extravagant, an absurdly expensive fantasy factory built for a guy who barely bothered to get out of bed. It feels like the ultimate Bud Light “Up For Whatever” ad, like Adam Sandler was walking home from McDonald’s in his most comfortable drawstring pants one day and discovered that a movie studio had built life-sized props of his favorite childhood arcade games and fitted out brand new Mini Coopers as personal bumper cars for him and his best friends. It might be fun to live vicariously through this experience, except the guy looks like he’d just as soon be back in the ball pit eating fries.
Incidentally, the audience at my screening – and keep in mind, these are people lining up for an advance screening of a Sandler movie on a Monday – did not disappoint. Babies cried, bored children ran up and down the stairs, and I ended up sitting next to an old foreign couple who translated for each other the entire movie and ate stinky food out of tupperwares. That the wife had showed up 10 minutes late didn’t stop her from periodically giving the evil eye to the kids behind her for kicking her seat. “You bad kids!” she accused, pointing a bony finger.
All that was much more interesting than anything on the screen. A few times in my career I’ve felt bad looking down my nose at things that bring other people genuine joy, like the time I sat next to a mentally-challenged youth during The Zookeeper, who was enjoying Paul Blart falling down so much that I put away my snotty notebook and felt bad about myself for the rest of the day. But for anyone genuinely enjoying Pixels (I didn’t see any but I’ll concede the possibility), I suspect it just as soon could’ve been anything else, anything on a screen moving fast enough to distract them. Who are these people? Who hurt them? What went wrong? Pixels turns any theater into a temporary halfway house for wayward souls.
Oh right, the plot. Adam Sandler works for Geek Squad, basically, but he’s still best friends with his childhood arcade buddy, who also happens to be the president. This character is played by Kevin James. And not as a casting-against-type kind of a thing either, Kevin James plays him as Paul Blart: The President, complete with spilled food on his face. He’s schlubby, insecure, and a constant embarrassment to his too-hot wife (Jane Krakowski). In fact we learn he’s the president through a tricky reveal, where one minute, he and Sandler are just two guys drinking beers at a bar, but when they look up, they see James on TV, being the butt of cable news coverage after he botched reading a children’s book to girl scouts. Somehow, this movie thought it was a good idea to work a schlubby-guy-has-to-win-back-the-respect-of-his-wife plot into a movie about 8-bit aliens attacking Earth. And they wrote it so that the schlubby guy was also the president.
I’d love to have seen the meeting where they came up with this one. I suspect the phrase “aw, f*ck it” was uttered at least once.
Much in the same way Kevin James’ character crudely combines necessary plot element (president) with unavoidable Happy Madison trope (tubby dolt who’s married above his station), Michelle Monaghan plays a rich, sexy MILF (Happy Madison requirement) who designs experimental weapons for the defense department (convenient alien movie conceit). By the way, we meet her when Adam Sandler goes to install a flatscreen TV at her house and finds her drinking wine in the closet. Seems her husband had left her for his 19-year-old pilates instructor. Probably because she was off all the time building experimental weapons. #WhitePeopleProblems
Why would anyone combine these elements into the same character, you ask? BECAUSE THEY DON’T CARE, HAVEN’T YOU BEEN PAYING ATTENTION? Michelle Monaghan was drinking the wine from a sippy cup (despite her character not having any children under 10) and my bet is, Peter Dante or someone had a funny wine-from-sippy-cup story at the Happy Madison card game during the week they wrote this and it made it in the movie. Haha, good one, Pete! Pass the guacamole. Pixels is so lazy it’s almost art.
The other members of Sandler’s save-the-Earth crew are a mulleted dwarf played by Peter Dinklage (probably an attempted riff on King of Kong‘s Billy Mitchell – Seth Gordon was a producer on Pixels) and a conspiracy-minded dork, played by Josh Gad. I’m still baffled as to how Josh Gad keeps ending up everywhere, seeing as how he has essentially two modes: sensitive nerd and shrieking manic guy, both broad caricatures that he performs energetically. In Pixels, he keeps breaking into a screechy falsetto with little to no prompting from the scene. But hey, scene schmene, this is a Happy Madison party! Sandler’s hitting on chicks, Paul Blart’s falling down, and Josh Gad’s doing his shriek trick in the corner. At the end everyone gets a souvenir DVD they’ll never watch.
Of course it’s probably unfair to judge Josh Gad’s acting by Pixels, which turns Peter Dinklage (who I know is a good actor) into a weird cross between Foghorn Leghorn and Scatman. Someone apparently thought the comedic value of his character was going to come down to silly wigs and how forcefully he could enunciate “totally tubular.” Nothing about it works, not even for a second.
At one point, Dan Aykroyd shows up for a cameo, and a few minutes later, we see Sandler and Monaghan at a bar together taking shots of Aykroyd’s crystal skull vodka (perfect for toasting victories over aliens!). Oh, you think, this really is like an Adam Sandler variety show, where his buddies show up to promote their projects between games of beer pong and he chases hot chicks around a table.
U mad, bro?
No, I’m jealous. It all seems like nice work if you can get it. But at some point, Happy Madison is going to have to learn how to translate my intense desire to have Adam Sandler’s life into a desire to sit through one of his movies.
I held out a modicum of hope for Pixels, seeing as how it was directed by Chris Columbus, and not one of Sandler’s flunkies like Dennis Dugan or Frank Coraci. But you’d be hard pressed to identify a difference in the final product. It looks like they took the cool Patrick Jean short on which Pixels was based (below) and said, “Hey, what if we turned this into every Adam Sandler movie?”
Nice job, guys, take a lunch.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.