By: Kevin Jordan
Movies for me and other nerds.
As I write this review, the approval rating for Pixels on Rotten Tomatoes is dropping before my very eyes. It currently sits at 13% (down from 17% last night) and all I can do is feel sorry for the 87% of critics who are dead inside. Yes, it’s an Adam Sandler movie, and almost all Sandler movies are about as fun as rectal exams, but Pixels isn’t like other Sandler movies – it’s about classic arcade games brought to life. Don’t get me wrong, Pixels follows the same basic formula and includes many of the same (often dumb) elements as his other films, but in Pixels, Sandler isn’t the main focus like he is in all his other movies (despite writer Tim Herlihy’s best efforts), the video games are. Like I said, you really have to be dead inside not to have at least a little fun watching Pixels.
(There are SPOILERS coming, though really the only SPOILERS are which games show up when. Considering the trailers, it’s almost impossible for me to spoil it more.)
The film begins in 1982 with the child versions of the four gamers that are our main characters at an arcade game tournament. Sam (Sandler) faces off against Eddie (Peter Dinklage) for the championship, while Sam’s best friend, Will (Kevin James), and Sam’s new friend, Ludlow (Josh Gad), cheer him on. Sam loses and grows up to be an electronics installer (think Best Buy Geek Squad) because that’s what happens to video game losers in lazily written scripts featuring Sandler. Conversely, Will grows up to become the President of the United States, even though he is terrible at video games and can barely read (I wish I was making that up). Because making an illiterate tub of fat the King of the World would be absurd.
The writing gets worse with regards to Sam and Will’s difficult-to-swallow relationship, as President Will spends an inordinate amount of time with Sam while simultaneously telling Sam that his wife is complaining that Will doesn’t spend any time with her. Sam is even on a first-name basis with White House guards and Secret Service agents so as to set up a metaphorical dick measuring contest with the female Lt. Colonel Violet Van Patten (Michelle Moynihan). I could go on, but the point is that much of the lazy script is devoted to setting up cheap jokes that are a staple of Sandler comedies without said jokes being relevant to the plot (or even the premise).
Speaking of lazy writing, Van Patten may be one of the worst characters ever written and not just in movies. I’ve met a few Lt. Colonels in real life, and not one of them would ever be found drinking wine and crying in a closet (because her husband cheated on her) while a strange man installed a television in her living room. And that’s how we meet her. You have to give credit to Moynihan for even taking such a thankless role, especially knowing Violet would be the standard love interest of Sandler’s character and, therefore, being no more than a pair of talking breasts.
Anyway, the film gets to the point when aliens attack a military base. Will calls Sam to have him look at footage of the attack and Sam concludes that they were attacked by Galaga. Naturally, nobody believes him (including a ridiculously hammy Brian Cox playing a General). Soon, the aliens attack again (this time, the Taj Mahal) in the form of Space Invaders. Meanwhile, in one of the very few clever moments of the film, the aliens send them a video message in the form of Ronald Reagan telling them that they received the humans’ declaration of war (a video containing footage of the 1982 arcade tournament). Additionally, the aliens set out the rules of the game (clever moment number 2) – the first to win three battles wins the other race’s planet (or gets to destroy it). This sets up the rest of the film’s scenes – Pacman, Donkey Kong, and Centipede – and the extremely predictable ending.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s hard to overemphasize how truly lazy the writing was. To begin with, Sean Bean makes a cameo as a British military commander, but doesn’t die. How do you fuck that one up? (Screenwriting 101: Sean Bean Always Dies.) Then there’s the matter of some of the games literally just being projected into the sky (like Centipede) or in spaceships. Pacman was built into the streets of New York and its ghosts played by our gamers in different colored Mini Coopers; why weren’t the other games incorporated into the environment? Is Herlihy really so creatively bankrupt? Did it not occur to anyone to survey a group a fifth graders for ideas? Am I asking rhetorical questions?
The laziness gets worse in the form of 80’s homages we get throughout the movie that shouldn’t have been there. They tell us the video the aliens received was from 1982, so why did we see Max Headroom (1984), Where’s the Beef? (1984), and the Duck Hunt dog (1984) (among others)? We even see a kid donning Daniel Larusso’s headband and performing a crane kick at the ’82 tournament even though The Karate Kid came out in 1984. Apparently, Herlihy forgot what year he wrote for the tournament and Happy Madison Productions doesn’t employ fact checkers or researchers or editors. Or people older than 30.
But to top it all off, Herlihy literally invented a video game called Dojo Quest, featuring a scantily clad Ashley Bensen, solely so Gad can make out with her. Because if there’s anything we can rely on in Sandler movies (especially those written by Herlihy – seriously, check out his writing credits), it’s that dumb fat guys, or losers, or dumb fat losers always get to kiss hot women.
Despite everything I just said about this film, I actually did have fun watching it. Not because of Sandler or James, but because of Gad, Dinklage, and nostalgia. While Dinklage’s character was nearly as hammed up as Cox’s General, there are times at which his smarm made me laugh out loud, bad Cajun(?) accent notwithstanding. Gad was even funnier and was probably the reason most people were laughing in this movie. But the real reason I liked it is because the film brought to life games I loved as a kid without taking a total dump on them (excusing Q*Bert peeing himself, that is. That was awful). When it comes to an Adam Sandler flick, I think that’s all you can really hope for.
Rating: Ask for all but two dollars back. This movie is the very definition of what I call Movies for Me. *I* would pay for it, but you probably shouldn’t.