Adam Sandler has become a husk of his former funny self. His humor, while always juvenile, has turned caustic. Gone are the lovable losers of “Happy Gilmore” and “Billy Madison,” replaced by the bitter schlubs of “Blended” and “Pixels” who feel the world owes them.
The latest of these is Sam Brenner, whose life was derailed (as he sees it) when he came in second in an arcade competition in 1982. But when the world is attacked by aliens embodying the video game characters he long ago conquered, Brenner has his shot at earning the acclaim he thinks he deserves, plus the pretty but stuck-up girlfriend who initially believes she’s too good for him.
Sure, “Pixels” is a family movie, and not a weird revenge fantasy.
When characters from “Galaga” descend on Guam, U.S. President William “Chewie” Cooper (Kevin James because of course) calls his childhood pal Brenner away from his electronics installation job to weigh in. Soon, Brenner is joined by conspiracy nut Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), cocky convict Eddie “Fire Blaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage) and Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), a scientist who doles out high-tech weapons when she’s not forced into the role of Brenner’s romantic prize.
We’re meant to view Brenner brushing his teeth for a gala at the White House as a sign of growth. That’s how low the bar is for our entitled hero.
With Chris Columbus (“Home Alone,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) in the director’s chair, you might expect “Pixels” to play into the whimsy of its source material. But while the action scenes of candy-colored, pixelated destruction are fun, they are few and far between. Instead, this so-called family film is fueled by the quest of a quitter who spends most of his screen time spitting insults and making excuses for why he never did much with his life until now. Sandler is downright off-putting as this old-school gamer with a chip on his shoulder. And what could have been a charming family film is infected by his mean-spiritedness.
“Pixels” acts wholly unaware of the rise of nerd culture, behaving as if the term itself is still a four-letter word. Painfully cliched, nerdy Ludlow is an incredibly awkward, 30-something virgin who lives in his grandmother’s basement and lusts after a scantily clad video game vixen called Lady Lisa. Its casting shows “Pixels” is also ignorant that more than straight white men enjoy video games and have since 1982. However, when “Pixels” remembers women exist, you might wish it hadn’t.
The women fall mainly into three categories: There’s the eye candy like Eddie’s ’80s groupies the CyberGirlz and Jane Krakowskj as the First Lady; the nag, like Ludlow’s loud-mouth grandmother, a general’s unseen but not unheard bellowing wife, a batch of scowling Girl Scouts, and Violet, who — in one of many cringe-worthy moments — buckles Sandler into his seatbelt; and the trophies, like Serena Williams, lusted after by horn-dog Eddie, Violet again as a prize for a barely matured Brenner, and Lady Lisa, who is mute and actually referred to as a “trophy” by the other characters. Of course, if a woman does have a position of power — say she’s a high-ranking military officer or the prime minister of England — she needs to be taken down a peg by Sandler and his dude crew, told she’s “snobby” or not sexy. Burn.
There’s a moment when it seems Sandler is aware of how his sophomoric shtick has festered, making me think “Pixels” would offer something fresh and fun. “We’re too old, it’s gross now,” he says, referring to a childish and objectifying game of listing the female celebs he and his buddy would like to bang. But that’s in the film’s first five minutes, before a barrage of misogynistic, hackneyed and downright lazy jokes. It’s this same disdain for audiences that slathers “Pixels” in any element of ’80s nostalgia possible to get adults to warm to it. Remember Hall and Oates? How about the “Where’s the Beef” lady? Do you have a vague memory of ’80s video games? Good. Because if you actually remember details like how you beat “Donkey Kong” or that Q*bert doesn’t speak English, you might get pissed about the liberties “Pixels” takes with the game culture it purportedly loves.
If “Wreck-It Ralph” was a love letter to video games, “Pixels” is that careless sext in the middle of the night that reads, “U up?” It’s lazy. It’s heartless, and it only wants one thing from you. In this case, it’s money.
It’s not all awful. Gad’s unhinged energy makes for some fun before it goes into overdrive, sending him into a spiral where screaming nonsense is meant to be comedy. Playing the willfully vile Eddie gives Dinklage some strange liberties like creating an accent I couldn’t place for the life of me, but didn’t care because he was genuinely entertaining. And props to Andrew Bambridge who plays 13-year-old Eddie, and perfectly nailed Dinklage’s cadence while rocking a god-awful blonde mullet. (Maybe “Game of Thrones” should get his number for potential flashback scenes.)
The action scenes are often zippy and thrilling. But there’s not much more to them than what you see in the trailers. So save yourself the money, or go see “Minions.” It’s dumb, too, but at least it’s not so “insanely idiotic” that it’d risk making you and your family stupider for having seen it.
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