Adam Sandler movies are a tough sell, in general. Sometimes he manages to find a sweet spot with the audience’s sense of humor in movies like Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison–the two films that combined to create the name of his film studio, Happy Madison Productions–and sometimes he misses the boat entirely with films like You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and Eight Crazy Nights.
Of course, sprinkled in-between are some of his middle-of-the-road films like Spanglish, Click, and his Netflix film The Cobbler, but as you can see, he’s largely known for complete blowouts or bombs.
Given a lot of the talk surrounding his newest film, and tribute to 1980s arcade games, Pixels, I walked into the theater on opening night with extremely low expectations.
“I see Pixels as a 3D metaphor for Hollywood’s digital assault on our eyes and brains. Not funny. Just relentless and exhausting,” said Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. “Moronic jokes, lame action and depictions of middle-aged neuroses. In other words: a Sandler movie,” added Joe Neumaier of the New York Daily News. Last, but not least, my favorite in ironic criticism, “This is a lazy f***ing movie,” said Rob Vaux of The Sci-Fi Movie Page.
Luckily, I chose not to heed these reviews because what Sandler and company managed to deliver in Pixels is a laugh-out-loud funny, charming, and nostalgic romp through my childhood wrapped up in an action-packed end-of-summer blockbuster.
In a summer filled with sequels and prequels, namely Jurassic World and Terminatior Genisys, a fresh, new action concept was desperately needed. Unfortunately, Pixels, in large part, is in no way an original concept, borrowing heavily from a viewer’s choice episode of Futurama. The movie pits a 1980s gaming superstar Sam Brenner (Sandler), his friend-turned-President-of-the-United-States Will “Chewie” Cooper (Kevin James), their childhood outcast pal Ludlow “Wonder Kid” Lamansoff (Josh Gad), and their nemesis Eddie “Fireblaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage) against an alien army of larger-than-life 1980s arcade games. Outside of this there is a loose love-story between Brenner and recent-divorcee Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), and that’s sort of the whole hour-and-a-half movie in a nutshell.
Therein lies the problem I think most critics had with this film–it’s short and it really lacks on content. If you come into watching Pixels wanting something on the same plane as, say, Avengers: Age of Ultron, you’re going to be disappointed. Because of the film’s short run time it hits you with the bulk of the action hard and fast, and then it’s over.
The important thing to take away from that, though, is that for a movie like Pixels that’s all one should really want.
Pixels is, ideally, a movie made for young adults, born between 1982 and 1995, and their parents. These were the generations that remember going into video game arcades with two fists full of quarters and spending the better part of an afternoon blasting away at Centipede and Asteroids and jumping barrel-after-barrel to reach the kill screen in Donkey Kong. If you’re too old to appreciate that sentiment–and the other billion 1980s pop culture references packed into Pixels–or you’re too young to know what any of those games listed above are, then it’s unlikely that this is going to be a movie you’ll enjoy.
If, however, that sounds remotely appealing to you, combining the concept with some awesome comedic performances makes Pixels a great night out.
Really standing above and beyond his castmates is Peter Dinklage. Obviously trying to distance himself a bit from the calculating, intelligent Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, Dinklage makes the 1980s reject man-child-turned-criminal Eddie Plant into a never-ending laugh machine. From his insults thrust at the rest of the Arcader team, to his oddly specific list of demands for helping them save the world, there are very few moments that Dinklage doesn’t steal the scenes he is in.
Josh Gad’s Laslow Lamansoff also does an excellent job of standing out, despite being the clear “new guy” in a movie of comedy superheroes like Sandler and James. Definitely a stereotype of just about any arcade geek from the 80s, Lamansoff still lives at home with his grandma, and is a die-hard conspiracy theorist–his only love being the alluring Lady Lisa from the only made-up game in the whole film, Dojo Quest. His awkwardness and journey out of his shell allow for Gad to explode with funny weirdness, much in the same fashion that won him recognition as Olaf in Frozen.
Perhaps in an attempt to take a back seat to newer talent, or maybe just as a result of poor script-writing, the weakest roles are Sandler’s Brenner, and James’ Cooper–both playing middle-aged men who, despite Cooper being President, feel as though they missed their prime, and are suffering from a failed, and a failing, relationship respectively. While this allows Sandler and Monaghan’s van Patten to have a romance sub-story, it leaves us wondering about James’ relationship with First Lady Carolyn Cooper, a surprisingly quiet cameo played serviceably by Jane Krakowski.
Combine these performances with enough 1980s video game and pop culture to make your eyes bleed–we’re talking everything from Hall & Oats to Fantasy Island and even a cameo from everyone’s favorite disembodied head, Max Headroom–and you really do have, in my opinion, an excellent summer comedy blockbuster.
In fact, if there were any shortcomings worth pointing out, there were only two that really caught my attention.
First, Monaghan’s character was the only female character in the whole movie with any substance, or any lines, really. Ashley Benson (of Pretty Little Liars Fame) as Lady Lisa literally had zero lines despite playing a semi-important role towards the film’s end, and not giving Jane Krakowski a chance to shine in a comedy is wasted talent. It stands out even worse when Q*Bert, of all characters, ends up talking his head off as a supporting character when, in real life, Q*Bert only spoke in symbols to mask his use of expletives.
Lastly, the subplot concerning Kevin James’ approval ratings and his inability to read makes little sense and is really only referenced maybe twice throughout the whole film. Honestly, it plays like something they forgot to cut from the script prior to filming and just left it in.
Overall, however, I can’t stress enough the fact that Pixels really is a movie worth seeing this summer. If you don’t necessarily fit into the film’s intended demographic but are willing to keep an open mind, you’re going to love it. No, it may not go down as one of Sandler’s greatest films–we certainly shouldn’t expect his company to add Pixels to it’s namesake–but all in all, if you like to laugh, and you like harmless fun with a penchant for nostalgia, then this is absolutely a movie you won’t want to miss.