Let’s get this out of the way right now, it felt weird walking out of an Adam Sandler movie and not thinking it’s the worst movie I’ve seen all year. We might as well face it, the man hasn’t made so much as a decent movie outside of his Happy Madison Productions wheelhouse since 50 First Dates — and that was 11 years ago! I don’t know if it was having a director who knows how to make actual movies calling the shots, but Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, the first two Harry Potters) has made the best Sandler vehicle in over a decade — still that’s not saying much.
In 1982, teenagers Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) and Cooper (Jared Riley) head to the opening of a new arcade. Turns out, Brenner is a gaming prodigy taking him to the Worldwide Video Arcade Championships, picking up Ludlow (Jacob Shinder) along the way. Unfortunately, Brenner loses to Eddie (Andrew Bambridge) in a Donkey Kong smackdown.
In present day, Cooper (Kevin James) is now the President of the United States and Brenner (Sandler) is a lowly home theater installer. But after a U.S. military base in Guam comes under attack by a live-action version of Galaga, the world’s fate winds up in their hands, and only Brenner, Cooper, Ludlow (Josh Gad), Eddie (Peter Dinklage), and prerequisite love interest Lieutenant Colonel Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan) can save Earth from impending attacks by Centipede, Pac-Man, Asteroids, and of course, Donkey Kong.
Faint praise be damned, this is the first time I’ve laughed in a Happy Madison film in years. No disrespect to James L. Brooks, Mike Binder, and Judd Apatow, but even though Spanglish, Reign Over Me, and Funny People don’t represent any of those directors at the height of their careers. Yet they all feel like masterpieces compared to the likes of Grown Ups, That’s My Boy, Jack and Jill, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (possibly the most homophobic movie ever made).
Expanding Patrick Jean’s two-minute short about 8-bit creatures attacking New York City into 105 minutes must have been hard enough. But surprisingly, Sandler cohort screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling have finally found a safety zone for Sandler fans of yore and the teeny poppers who still laugh at his outlandish antics. This also may be the softest PG-13-rated film his crew has ever produced. Believe it or not, there’s only one pee joke!
If there’s anything working against it, it’s the film’s insistence on us buying James as the President of the United States. After two Paul Blarts and Zookeeper, long gone are his days as a lovable oaf. Reruns of The King of Queens and his costarring turn in Hitch are as good as he was ever going to get. Gad almost wears out his welcome, but is nothing compared to the soon-to-be-Razzie-nominated turn by Dinklage. It’s a truly sad day when he is the absolute worst part of any production. At least his Game of Thrones costar Sean Bean doesn’t get killed off, something people love to do to him and I honestly was waiting for it to happen. Meanwhile, Brian Cox is given absolutely nothing to do but yell his lines while he’s made fun of for being “old.”
Sandler and Monaghan finally make a believable couple in a Sandler movie, but you still never once care whether they wind up together or not. And frankly, Sandler looks a little bored and disinterested in the whole thing before the credits role. Almost as if he was clocking the runtime in his head while shooting, just waiting for his paycheck to clear and he can move onto another miserable excuse for cinematic excrement. Thankfully, Columbus keeps the action moving along — once it finally starts — and the special effects are really fun to watch as all our favorite arcade games are brought to life. They look particularly nifty in 3D, only making them seem that more real.
The final word is that this is not necessarily good entertainment. But considering how awful we’ve come to expect from Sandler & Co, Pixels feels like a milestone for all involved. Except Dinklage. You’re still better off watching either ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ or ‘King of Kong.’