“Am I high right now?” I scribbled in my notes during the second half of the new Adam Sandler gamesploitation flick Pixels. Don’t get too excited: The film is bad — worse even than it looks, probably — but by that point it had achieved such throwaway weirdness that instead of staring stone-faced at how bland and unfunny it all was, I found myself giggling at its sheer idiocy. That’s probably the idea, to some extent, as any movie where Kevin James plays the president of the United States clearly doesn’t want you engaging with it on a deeper level. But it’s hard not to look at Pixels and feel like Sandler & Co. missed a huge opportunity here.
While it’s a lot more kid-friendly and CGI-heavy than the usual Happy Madison fare, Pixels is at heart another harebrained, Sandlerian teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy. This time, instead of scoring his hot eighth-grade teacher or getting back at jocks or fast-forwarding through the boring parts of life, he’s asked to save the world by playing a giant real-life 1980s video game: Enders Game meets Grown Ups.
So the film begins in the summer of 1982, when Sam Brenner (Anthony Ippolito in his youth, Sandler in the present-day) was a dorky teenage arcade king, often accompanied by chubby pal Will Cooper (Jared Riley in his youth, James in the present). But when Sam loses to the preening, be-mulleted, and perfectly named Eddie Plant (a very good Andrew Bambridge in his youth, an even better Peter Dinklage in the present), he is shattered. Years later, we find our hero working a dead-end job as a TV and electronics repairman when Will, now a lousy president with plunging poll numbers, calls him in for help with an ominous new enemy: Something is attacking the Earth, and it appears to be Galaga.
It turns out an alien race has misinterpreted all the video-game signals beamed into space over the decades as a challenge. So they’ve reprogrammed and supersized all our old video-game characters, and have come to battle humanity for the fate of planet Earth. (And because this is another '80s love-fest from Sandler, the aliens’ menacing exhortations come via video clips of Ronald Reagan, Hall & Oates, Madonna, et al.) Sam and Will are joined by Eddie, now sprung from prison (in exchange for helping he wants clemency, freedom from taxes, and a threesome with Martha Stewart and Serena Williams), and Über-geek conspiracy-theorist Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) to face off against these giant pixelated monsters. Helping lead them is Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), a beautiful divorced single mom who first has to endure Sam’s pathetic advances before it’s revealed that she’s a military official. Then she has to endure his pathetic barbs about what a snob she is because she wouldn’t go out with him. I know, I know — good times.
At his best, Sandler plays characters who are mired in self-loathing and disassociated from the world. When the camera focuses on him, especially in his earlier films, something surprisingly dark emerges from behind that casual, devil-may-care façade. And there is a promising idea here: Sam, as a kid, masters video games because he can see the patterns — everything, he thinks, fits into a preprogrammed routine. As an adult, he adheres to the same philosophy. When Violet first rejects him (“I don’t think my rebound guy is a 210-pound guy who fixes TVs for a living”), he launches into a vision of the world that fits everybody into preassigned roles: She’s a snob, he’s a nerd, etc. If you squint really hard, you might discern a theme there. Sam can’t progress in the game of life because he sees everything as predetermined. “The only way to beat these things is to calculate the numbers,” he tells Violet’s young son as they bond over video games. But the boy, raised on first-person shooters in a post-Atari world, has a different existential philosophy: “Pretend you’re the guy, and you don’t want to die.” Jean-Paul Sartre, eat your heart out.
Alas, Sandler plays it all so awkwardly that any meaning is lost amid a queasy sea of awkward pauses and halfhearted line-delivery. I say this as a fan: He seems tired. Not merely lazy, let’s-just-cash-the-check tired. It's a drained, get-me-out-of-here tired. This could have been the ultimate Sandler movie — it’s all '80s in-jokes — but he’s barely there for it. And his total lack of involvement brings his fellow cast members down: Monaghan is always a welcome presence, with a fine gift for comedy, but her scenes with Sandler feel like she’s running lines against a cardboard box. James, meanwhile, has taken Sandler’s lead and phones it all in. Josh Gad, for his part, doesn’t need any help: He has already achieved cosmic levels of tedium with that patented high-pitched screaming of his. The only actors who manage to shine are the aforementioned Dinklage, in part because his character’s whole shtick is to steamroll anyone else around him, and Brian Cox, clearly having the time of his life as a gung-ho admiral who just wants to bomb the crap out of random countries.
Even the directorial choice largely backfires. Perhaps to help with the somewhat more ambitious sci-fi plotline, Sandler & Co. airlifted in Chris Columbus — he of Home Alone and the first two Harry Potter films. But Columbus, despite a considerable string of box-office hits, isn’t known for the energy of his films. Sure, he can showcase the energy of a whirlwind performer, as he did with Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. But when his somnolent direction is matched with a somnolent actor like Sandler, the energy drains at an exponential pace.
But then something odd happens. Pixels is so slow, so dumb, so filled with empty pauses and non sequiturs … that it starts to approach cult-film levels of weirdness. Some of this is clearly intentional: The aliens at one point actually give the earthlings a trophy for their victory in battle — a real-life Q*bert, both cuddly and terrifying, that whimpers and pees itself when scared. But most of it comes from the sheer rudderlessness of the movie: an actor who doesn’t want to be there, a director who doesn’t know what to do, a conceit that runs on autopilot, and a muddle of tones that feels like the screenwriting software is crashing around us as we watch. That results in isolated moments of dopey charm, but the film itself can’t be saved. A movie like Pixels should be stupid and energetic, not stupid and lifeless.