Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years his films have slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of big budget studio comedies, becoming thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will I retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join me and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.
Pixels could have been nominated for an Academy Award. Yes, really. No, not for Best Director (Chris Columbus). Not for Best Adapted Screenplay (it was based on a short film of the same name by Patrick Jean). Absolutely not for Best Actor, Actress or even Supporting Actor. Not even for Best Editing or in either of the sound categories. The best aspect of Pixels, and what it could have been nominated for, is its visual effects.
To refresh your memory, the nominees for Best Visual Effects at the 88th Oscars were Ex Machina (which ended up winning, deservedly), Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Even in an incredibly strong year with films that pushed the envelope for visual effects, Pixels could have taken a spot at the table for the way it uniquely blended practical and computer-generated effects. Digital Domain and Sony Pictures Imageworks, which handled the effects, found an inventive way to imagine three-dimensional versions of classic two-dimensional video game characters and incorporate them into the film’s world. It could have been much easier to depict characters like Donkey Kong or Pac-Man as lifeless photocopies, trying to remain as faithfully as possible to their original designs. Instead, the effects team crafted the beloved characters with imposing weight, building each one out of tiny cubes, each pulsing and emitting light that makes every interaction feel livelier. Beyond that, the smaller “deep-fake” moments, with outdated recordings from the likes of Fantasy Island and Madonna and Hall & Oates are successfully executed. Pixels remains the only Happy Madison film to be released in IMAX or 3D, and even watching at home on my laptop, the colors were vibrant and rich, popping in all the right ways. For once, you could actually see where the bulk of the film’s reported $90 million budget went.
The rest of Pixels sucks.
“Just memorize the patterns, and you’ll win,” says Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) as his mantra for success at classic arcade games. I’ve often considered trying to write a review of one of these films, especially in the later stages of this project, by simply reading the plot synopsis and not actually viewing the film because they are so formulaic and predictable. Pixels follows the same character beats and story structure as so many other films we’ve covered, throwing in an action-adventure twist just to make things interesting. The bones — or pixels, if you will — of Patrick Jean’s short film are certainly visible in the adaptation, but Pixels has too much fat on it to be as much fun as it wants to be. The concept of classic arcade characters invading Earth could certainly make for a fun family adventure film, but there are too many glaring plot inconsistencies to turn the film into anything coherent. You can’t tell me Sandler read the conceit for this film and wasn’t immediately drawn to a brand new avenue for “kids these days” humor, and the film goes to great lengths to draw those moments out. While the action scenes are kinetically filmed — the Pac-Man sequence is even, dare I say it, fun! — and it’s always enjoyable to imagine a video game coming to life (for me, anyway), the surrounding scenes are full of the same dumb schlock that feels like something out of a Dennis Dugan film. Also, Kevin James plays the President of the United States.
Thankfully, Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) came onboard as director to rein in Sandler’s worst tendencies. You’d fully expect a Happy Madison film featuring Peter Dinklage to have its fair share of “little people” jokes, but there are surprisingly none to be found. And at least the romantic subplot between Sandler and Michelle Monaghan, as unnecessary as it is, is somewhat organically developed. Indeed, the first scene between the two actually features some nice chemistry; and how many films has Sandler starred in where the romance is front and center yet barely justified?
For all its faults, Pixels at least took risks. By 2015, Sandler was in full-on coasting mode, making a film as an excuse to go on an elaborate vacation. Plus he had already inked a lucrative deal with Netflix. His performance may be as phoned-in as ever (excepting the aforementioned scene with Monaghan), but the production values, and especially the visual effects, remain the only worthwhile aspect. Could Pixels be seen as Sandler’s belated attempt to cash in on the comic-book adaptation / shared universe phenomenon? It provides an interesting thought experiment, and while I wouldn’t mind more video-game-characters-versus-people adventures, one film with Sandler, Josh Gad, James and Dinklage as these characters is more than enough for me.
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: Ashley Benson appears as a pixelated video game vixen and literally doesn’t say a word. Sean Bean (!) has a thankless role as a Gruff British Military Type. But this week, I’m giving the honors to Jane Krakowski as the First Lady. Krakowski, as consistently funny as she is, has been woefully underserved in most projects that aren’t helmed by Tina Fey. Here, she has a couple substance-free lines before she inevitably fades into the background.
- Just Go With It – The Happy Madison Promise: I can think of at least three other films, off the top of my head, that I’ve covered that open with scenes of the main characters in their pre-teen / teenage years (almost always set in the 80’s): Grown Ups, That’s My Boy and Jack and Jill. And Pixels is the fourth.
- Fart Joke Counter: As juvenile as this film is, it is remarkably free of any farts.
- The Walkout Test: Believe it or not, I think this one’s a fail. I can’t imagine a world where this person would be at a screening of a film that so heavily involves video-game characters.
- NEXT TIME: Begun, the Netflix Era has, with The Ridiculous 6.