I may be only 23 years old, but sometimes I think that my glory days have passed me by – although, I acknowledge this might be because I am only 23 years old and am without any knowledge or conception of what the future may hold. I still remember the day I graduated from high school fairly well: talking to a lot of people I would not see for a very long time, or even at all since that day, one of the buttons on my rental jacket coming off, the mispronunciation of my last name during the handing of ‘diplomas,’ and something my grandfather told me about college.
During the family post-graduation celebration at my mom’s house, I remember talking about college to some extent, about how simultaneously excited and scared I was to get started at the College of William & Mary. My grandfather pulled me aside in an attempt at reassurance and told me that college is the best four years of a person’s life, if you do it right. In my case – unfortunately, it’s not the same for everyone – college was the best four years of my life. I’ve been a college graduate for a little over two months, and I can’t count all of the times I’ve stayed up at night trying to relive every single wonderful moment in my mind.
But by the end of every nostalgia session, I have to remind myself that the past is gone, and life only moves forward, so I have to move with it, and that’s exactly the point. Nostalgia is healthy in moderation, but only as long as we don’t cling. Unfortunately, this is where the films of Happy Madison Productions enter the conversation. These films from Adam Sandler and his motley crew of misfit comedians are often full of characters experiencing a prolonged adolescence, and by the end are still given full license to remain as juvenile as they’ve ever been.
Now, enter Pixels, a lazy, half-hearted mistake of a wannabe summer blockbuster that includes many of these same characters clinging to and trying to relive their glory days, all the while dragging classic arcade video games like Pac-Man, Galaga, and Donkey Kong down with them. Commence the groaning and face-palming.
When I first heard of Pixels and its core concept, I was really excited about it, thinking that it would be one of the coolest films of the summer. Then I watched the trailer premiere, saw that Adam Sandler was in it, learned that Happy Madison would be producing, and all hope and expectations I had dropped to an unfathomably abysmal low. With every minute that passed, Pixels proved all of my doubts.
First of all, it probably goes without saying given what I have previously stated, but all of these characters are incredibly unlikeable. Adam Sandler is often as immature as he has ever been, Michelle Monaghan, Josh Gad, and Brian Cox get sucked into his antics, I’m still trying to figure out what the hell we did to deserve Kevin James as a fictional president, and I will go as far to say that this is the worst role Peter Dinklage will ever have in his career. Especially in the case of Dinklage, the Happy Madison team seems to unapologetically continue their tradition of writing characters with no intention of growing up, but this is not the sort of unapologetic behavior I can give a pass to.
Not only that, these characters are stuck with some of the most preposterous lines of dialogue you will find in any film this year. My gut reaction was that many of these actors must feel so embarrassed to have been a part of these scenarios and spoken these ridiculous word combinations called sentences, and then I started thinking about each actor’s role in this film.
Sean Bean is in the film for one scene, and he serves little purpose other than being a tough British Corporal. Brian Cox serves little purpose as the film’s faux antagonist. Little needs to be said about Sandler’s character; he’s a chronic underachiever who makes very little development. The same can be said about Gad, unfortunately. Dinklage elicits similar characteristics while maintaining a sexist macho-male aura that’s somehow supposed to be ironically likable all the way through to the film’s conclusion.
Not only is Dinklage’s character sexist, Pixels, as a whole, shows its misogynistic colors. Jane Krakowski, who plays Kevin James’s First Lady, is there for little purpose other than to be his wife, make concerned faces when something goes wrong, and smile when things are going right. Given her work on NBC’s 30 Rock, I was expecting the film to give her some room to show her comedic chops – albeit with some less than stellar material – but Pixels cuts her out completely.
Michelle Monaghan’s Lieutenant Colonel Violet van Patten is a shallow attempt at a strong female lead who winds up being nothing more than Sandler’s love interest, in keeping with other Happy Madison films. And Ashley Benson, who makes an appearance as classic video game warrior Lady Lisa, completely abandons all reason and character mythology in order to be someone Gad will obsess, pine and slobber over.
These characters point to the film’s lazy, hackneyed writing, as well. The jokes are typically sophomoric and would find a loving home in just about any other film in Happy Madison’s catalogue. Secondly, the opening makes no secret about where the plot will go, and the story hits all of the beats that you would expect it to along the way. Third, the internal logic to this ‘game’ being played between humanity and the aliens in video-game form is all too often neglected, treating the audience as if they are not capable of detecting all of the plot holes it creates.
The bottom line is that Pixels is an unintentional metaphor about Adam Sandler’s career. Sandler’s peak popularity came in the mid to late ‘90s with films like Billy Madison (1995), Happy Gilmore (1996), The Waterboy (1998), and Big Daddy (1999). Since then, he has found some critical success in his more dramatic work, especially with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002), but his popularity has been on a relative decline. Throughout the 2000s and this decade have been numerous failed attempts to both keep his comedy stardom on high and keep it breathing.
Now with Pixels, he tries to relive those glory days while simultaneously trying to restore the former glory of those video games included in the film, and perhaps reinvent himself as a summer blockbuster hero. Unfortunately for Sandler, it winds up coming across as failed attempt to hit the reset button on an entire career. At this point, it seems incredibly unlikely that Sandler will regain relevance ever again. Let’s call Pixels the final nail in his coffin.
If there are any positives to be found in these confines, they are twofold. First of all, the special effects are pretty cool and the action set pieces, while they are few and far between – part of me actually wishes there were more – and contain a mangled mess of the same loud and noisy nonsense most special effects-driven films succumb to, are fairly entertaining. Secondly, the pacing is quick enough to get one through this 105-minute ordeal relatively painlessly. Of course, none of this could ever help the film’s case, but this film could have never been boring, because watching all the pieces fail is almost as fun as if they had succeeded.
We look back to past for a couple of reasons. We think on the wonderful moments we’ve spent with cherished friends, family, and loved ones; the memories we would not trade for anything, even that thing we want most from life, whatever that may be. Additionally, we think of our personal failures in order to judge how to best move forward and improve ourselves. Happy Madison has been delusional enough to believe they’ve had no shortcomings, and with Pixels, a horribly egregious piece of loveable loser fan service, it seems like it will finally be their downfall.