Adam Sandler, the venerable former Saturday Night Live comedian, who, like Peter Pan, never seems to grow up, is at his worst when playing to his infantile adult audience in disgusting fratboy nostalgia pieces like Grown Ups, or even more disgusting satirical nightmares like Eight Crazy Nights, where he continually resurrects ugly sorts of locker-room humor at the expense of women, ethnic groups, and minorities like he still thinks society finds that kind of stuff funny (watch out for his next film, The Ridiculous 6, a spoof of Westerns ala The Magnificent 7, where his entire cast of Native Americans recently walked off the set because of what they felt were patronizing, insulting portrayals of their culture in the script).
Conversely, he’s at his best when he’s doing wildly imaginative family pieces or lower-key romantic comedies where harmless silliness is combined with a genuine wit, charm, and a reminder to today’s youth that there was a certain good in his generation’s “good ole days” that will be lost forever if they don’t find ways to keep it alive in an increasingly detached society.
Thankfully, the latter is the case in Pixels, a raucous homage to the early days of arcade video games and, at the same time, a subtle nudge to the new generation of game-players that playing those old games in that crazy, old-fashioned way (going to the arcade rather than just staring at a screen while lounging on the couch) had value that went far beyond just punching buttons, scoring points, and gaining levels.
Sandler plays a former video game ace, who, with his nerdy buddies help, had the first national arcade game championship within his grasp back in 1982 until psyched out by eventual winner Fire Blaster, a stuck-on-himself Donkey Kong wiz. Sam’s convinced he’s a failure, and when we catch up with him decades later, that’s still about where he’s at, ambling through life anonymously while paying the bills installing audio/video equipment in people’s homes. His friend’s paths have also diverged; game ace Ludlow (Josh Gad) is now a full-time conspiracy theorist, Fire Blaster (deliciously played by Peter Dinklage) has used his talent to land himself in prison for a myriad of white-collar crimes, and Will Cooper, Sam’s best friend (Kevin James), has (lo and behold) become President of the United States.
So when President Cooper is trying to figure why a US military base on Guam has been literally pixelated by unknown assailants using a pattern he finds vaguely familiar, he calls in best bud Sam to get his opinion. Sam, in turn, calls in the obnoxiously manic Ludlow, who recognizes it instantly as the same used in one of the old video games they used to play. Turns out that the invaders are aliens who received a time-capsule message from Earth containing footage of that first video game tournament that Sam lost, and assume that Earth is challenging them to a winner-take-all battle for the planet. And Earth has already lost Round One.
With giant-size 80’s video game characters crushing landmarks like the Taj Mahal and pixelating humans as hostages, Sam and crew are deputized to halt the destruction at the aliens’ next target, London, and they do once the military is moved out of the way and, in the words of President Cooper, the “nerds take over.” But nothing is really settled until Sam’s “arcaders” take on a Godzilla-like Pac-Man in New York and Sam must once again face his old nemesis, Donkey Kong, in a climactic showdown.
The silliness of all this is actually quite hilarious. Sandler and Dinklage are obviously having a good time, James can barely manage to stay “presidential” (and sometimes doesn’t), Michelle Monaghan as a top Defense Department analyst spars delightfully with Sandler, who becomes a genial love interest, and cameos by Brian Cox and Sean Bean as military jarheads are hysterical. The big-screen video game effects are remarkable, particularly the pixelation-style destruction which turns innumerable buildings and other objects into giant piles of small cubes. If we could just get Josh Gad to tone down his loud-mouthed Ludlow just a tad, the film’s execution would have been darn near flawless. The belly laughs and giggles were coming fast and furious from every corner of the theater. I was never (and am not now) a “gamer,” but I did mess around enough with Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and others with students back in the day to be able to get at least some of the myriad inside jokes and hoot-inducing visuals. It really was a kick!
This is one of those fun, funny man-child Adam Sandler flicks like Bedtime Stories or even Deeds, that takes you back to an earlier time and helps you remember some of what made it so enjoyable–and tantalizes today’s generation with the rather startling reality that sometimes, taking a few steps back to the past might be a good formula for living a richer, more fun future. “Safe” for kids of most any age (seriously–Sandler has learned to pull himself back from the weird tirades that induce cringes in others of his more family-friendly shows), this is a dumb-on-purpose romp that you’d be kind of dumb to skip if you’re looking for some fun, family entertainment.