Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The summer of 2015 has brought us some fantastic blockbusters, including Mad Max: Fury Road, Spy, and Inside Out. What they’ve shown us is that…well, not everyone can be winners. But perhaps more importantly, they’ve shown us that striking a balance between strong female and male characters can often make very good films great. Adam Sandler films, on the other hand, don’t go for any of that developmental nonsense. Instead, they opt for that casually sexist, narratively unintelligible standard that Sandler has produced for the past decade through his gleefully oafish Happy Madison Productions. Pixels is standard and rudimentary for Sandler’s schlock, not particularly awful like his self-indulgent Grown-Ups franchise or nearly as gross-out as That’s My Boy. Yet it’s still fundamentally terrible storytelling, with no redeemable characters as they are all routinely cruel and immature to one another. I just don’t see how this film can appeal to anyone above a young child’s mind. When there are comedies like Trainwreck out, this shouldn’t even be considered an option.
Rather than describe the plot of the film, I’ll describe the characters since that’ll more accurately reflect the essence of Pixels. Adam Sandler plays Brenner, a man who finished in second place in a worldwide video game championship as a kid which seems to have ruined his life for the past thirty years. Now, he sets up technology in people’s homes while also being friends with the President of the United States, played by Kevin James. He’s apparently the man that followed President Barack Obama based on a line by The Token Black Guy™ at a point later in the film, although the time and place of the film itself isn’t established so who really knows. He’s a buffoon that somehow got elected president; perhaps, based on every other character here, it’s because he’s a genuinely good man. An idiot, but a good man. Josh Gad plays Ludlow, a conspiracy theorist who notices that aliens are coming to attack the world after receiving video game signals. He is seen screaming homophobic lines at soliders (in an attempt at being inspired that instead seems to confirm stereotypes and misogyny), yelling profusely at his grandmother, and yearning after a fictitious woman because his social skills are terrible.
Those are the heroes of the story. Did I forget to mention their sidekicks? There’s First Lady Jane Cooper, played by the incredibly funny Jane Krakowski, and she’s given a few lines to develop plot because her contract probably allotted it. Then there’s Violet, played by Michelle Monaghan, who appears to be the only shred of a female character, until she is made weak and feeble despite being a high-ranking official in the military. So of course she must be saved by Brenner, a man incapable of doing most things not involving video games on his own. Now, we could account for the fact that the two of them riff like schoolhouse kids regarding being snobby and who has more power to show her development, but that elementary piece of debate only lasts…the entire first half of the film. Ugh. But how could I forget the most important sideshow: Eddie, played by Peter Dinklage, who is a ridiculous man that beat Brenner at his championship who now is in jail and demands stupid things upon his release. One of them is a threesome with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart, which is a weak joke that lasts the entire second half of the film.
Oh yeah, so the plot. Things blow up and Pac-Man, Centipede, Tetris, and Donkey Kong are some of the games that come into play. The film’s biggest fault with these creations is that we are so familiar with how these games play out and all of their rules that there’s no surprise when a “surprise” happens within the game. We know Pac-Man can eat the ghosts, so that’s not an exciting twist. The action scenes look impressive in 3D, a rare feat for a thoroughly bland action film, but I never complained about the scenes being shot the way they did for the effects. For the story and overall aesthetic appeal, though, the scenes move too quickly and rarely get past their gratingly obvious comic appeal. The director here is Chris Columbus, best known for establishing the cinematic world of Harry Potter with the series’ first two adaptations. I just don’t see what he saw with this film. I suppose, like all Sandler properties, money spoke far louder than words. Actually, the words speak pretty loudly here. They’re exclaimed and shoved in our faces.
Grade: ★½ (out of 5)