I do not begrudge Adam Sandler for his filmography. The guy has brilliantly figured out a way to make successful movies that don’t require a ton of work. His family and friends get a free vacation (see Blended, 50 First Dates, Just Go With It, or the Grown Ups movies) and the actor/producer cobbles together (no pun intended) a lazy-if-acceptable, minimum viable product that he can make a profit off of. At this point in his career, who can blame the guy? Imagine a world where you can do what you love for a few weeks a year with your famous friends in an exotic location AND make boatloads of money off of it? It makes for one hell of a life… and some terrible movies.
I bring this up because as a critic, there’s a perceived duty to be polarizing. “Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down! I loved it! I hated it!” Taking a measured middle ground isn’t interesting to read, so we often get hyperbolic in our praise or damnation of a film. I explain this to wrap some context around why I am willing to say that I had fun with Pixels, despite it being yet another average, meaningless entry from Sandler and the Happy Madison family. It’s not a good movie, but it’s not terrible enough for me to swing the cinematic pendulum negatively; I’m sure Rotten Tomatoes will provide enough help there. This flick had me laughing out loud several times. What I’m confounded by, however, is the target audience.
Pixels revolves around a team of 80’s video game nerds: Sandler plays Brenner, the 1982 Arcade World Championship runner-up, who lost to a man who calls himself Fire Blaster (Peter Dinklage). Brenner now leads an unremarkable life as a home theater installation technician (cue the product placement from Sony). His best friend since childhood, Cooper (Kevin James), has somehow become the President of the United States, despite being a bumbling buffoon who is, parenthetically, terrible at video games. Rounding out the crew is Ludlow (Josh Gad), a socially awkward conspiracy theorist has a hard time making friends outside of being a great gamer and part-time hacker. When aliens invade the planet under the guise of the 80’s arcade games that were sent into space as a time capsule, President Cooper assembles these resident experts to dispatch the aliens at their own games.
Pixels is marketed as a kids movie designed to sell products; every child walking out of my screening was asking their parents for a Q*bert doll, or a Playstation, or one of the several other brands that padded Sandler’s bank account for advertising. What’s confusing is, Pixels is not necessarily a kids movie.
The language is a bit course for a family film, and there is also a notable amount of alcohol featured as a way to have fun and party. As someone that partakes in both cursing and drinking, it’s surprising that I noticed this, but when you’re sitting in a theater full of kids laughing at a movie where its characters take shots and swear at each other, it’s unsettling.
Aside from the fact that kids will not inherently know the very arcade games that the movie’s set pieces rely on, the characters are no more fleshed out than the brief descriptions I gave above, the writers throw in a romantic subplot with a totally game Michelle Monaghan just because, the 3D is used as a gimmick to make watching people react to playing video games seem interesting, and many loving references are made to 80’s trends that will undoubtedly fly over kids’ heads. So who is this movie for, and why did I say that Pixels is acceptable?
Two words: Josh Gad. The guy effortlessly steals every scene he’s in, causing kids and parents to laugh out loud in equal measure. Gad demonstrates why he’s on track to becoming a household name; his performance is compelling, grounded, and hilarious in a movie that doesn’t require him to commit as he has here. Peter Dinklage also chews up scenery as Fire Blaster, escalating the proceedings and challenging Sandler to care about his performance, which also warrants him a few earnest chuckles as well.
At the end of the day, Pixels is by no means a good movie. The target audience is muddled, the writing is lazy, and there are no attempts to even hide seams of Hollywood filmmaking. But because of some laugh-out-loud moments and unadulterated charisma from its cast, Pixels is an acceptable Redbox rental that will support Sandler’s lifestyle. And man do I want that lifestyle.
Pixels opens today in Philadelphia area theaters.