Published on August 13th, 2015 | by Greg Payne


Adam Sandler’s Pixels Is The Surprise Of The Summer

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As I sit down to dissect my completely unexpected feelings about the new Adam Sandler movie Pixels, I click over to the flick’s imdb page for reference and I see that it’s currently rating a piddling 5.3 on the site. There are already listicles circulating that compile its most hilariously scathing reviews into handy self-contained links, and there’s a ten-minute dissection of its alleged suckitude on YouTube currently heading towards the two million hit mark. I get it: the world has decided that Pixels is this summer’s kah-beuhm of a critical and commercial disaster. When I posted post-screening that I actually really liked the movie, my long-suffering NtC editor replied with “Oh God…” and I could tell he was envisioning this film snoot writer’s brain snapping after too many Winterbottom marathons and succumbing to the dark side.

I don’t think I have, and truth be told, I was as surprised as anyone at how much I laughed, and at what, and how sustained that laugher was. Honestly, it could very well have been the whiplash of low expectations. As I headed into the theatre, I asked the bored teen handing out the 3-D glasses, “How bad is it, really?” and as theatre management demands, she was noncommittal and simply pointed out (erroneously) that there were a lot of people in the theatre. My hoped for Pixels were pretty low, but I was desperate for something fun and stupid and High Concept and let’s be honest, Pac Man invades New York is a pretty out-of-left-field Concept that probably involved many people who were High at the time.

It’s a storyline that could have been sketched out on a cocktail napkin, as the cliché goes: an alien race gets ahold of a space capsule containing video of an early-eighties video game championship then launches an attack on Earth using those 64-bit icons as avatars, with attacks spaced out to hit the predictable movie beats. To the rescue ride a mismatched bunch of former video game whizzes turned adult failures, who take on the invaders using the skills learned as Atari-age teens plugging quarters into arcade machines.  Cast the goofy sarcastic guy (Sandler), one member of his stable of hangers-on (Kevin James), a hot babe actress du jour (Michelle Monaghan), a Broadway star sticking to his established persona (Josh Gad), a TV star turning his established persona completely on its head (Peter Dinklage) and some British actors cashing in (Brian Cox, Sean Bean).  Unleash the special effects in blurry 3D Afterthought™ as the cityscape becomes an arcade game screen writ large and voila! Summer hit, right? Here’s the part I’m still getting my head around. It actually freaking worked. Okay, not the hit part. A middling opening weekend in North America is souring an already rough year for Sony.  As a Friday opening night piece of junky entertainment that actually has some heart? Quite delightful.

Interjectory memo to the beleaguered Amy Pascal: I know you’re not getting a ton of usable blurbs for the overseas rollout campaign so here are a few, grab ‘em if you like ‘em. “Surprisingly good!” “Not nearly as bad as MovieBob has lead you to believe!” “You’ll get to see the Fantastic Four trailer! (not in all cities)”  “Michelle Monaghan has cheekbones that won’t quit!” “Give us a dollar and we’ll let you punch Josh Gad!” You’re welcome.

The knives were out for Pixels from the word go, mostly by, let’s be honest, people who really didn’t have any skin in the game. The whole “they’re pissing on my childhood!” stance shows no signs of running its course among the public, from Indiana Jones chasing aliens to Ninja Turles with noses. Yes, we cherish our memories of our youth and would rather that no money-grubbing studio hacks mess them up while they try to sell them back to us. The thing is, Pixels takes a position on this that’s more meta than you might think. If, as Greil Marcus wrote, paraphrasing Robert Hass, nostalgia is “a taste for discovery in ruins, an emotional decadence, the refuge of a crippled soul or an impoverished heart…” then Pixels is, at its core about those same crippled souls finding heroism and redemption in the things that sustained them through their childhoods. This isn’t a theme to be derided; let’s not forget that even more than knowing popcult nods, it’s what the Wright/Pegg/Frost triad traffic in to enormous (much more so than Pixels, no beating around the bush there) artistic success.

It’s easy to hate Adam Sandler, not so much for the actual quality of his comedies (none of which I could have been arsed to pay to see in the theatre since 2002 or so) but for the fact that he’s a genuinely solid performer who’s squandered a chance at a much more interesting career arc. To me, the best of his early years remains Billy Madison, if only for its purity of mission. That movie is just shy of 90 minutes of Sandler smearing his id across the screen, and finding a balance between guilty laughter and crass silliness in the process. The wheels came off the wagon, I always felt, when his storylines began giving him an actual goal (get the girl, score the goal, prove yourself a worthy stepfather). Along with the anything-goes anarchic sense of storytelling, the laughs went out the window.  And yet despite the diminishing returns and the shelf full of Golden Raspberries, Sandler wields an uncommon freedom within the H’wood system. Kevin Pollak observed that Sandler’s a modern day Charlie Chaplin, not in terms of his artistic success, but rather in terms of the luxury he’s afforded to choose material and collaborators with almost nobody able to veto his wishes, a luxury that despite his detractors, he’s virtually alone in possessing in Hollywood.

The few directors who’ve seen the psyche that was behind the goofball took him to another level. Yes, Punch-Drunk Love is the easy out here, but I’d actually cite Funny People as the peak of his persona’s willing self-flagellation. It’s now viewed as lesser Apatow and was derided for its rambling length at the time, but Funny People captures the personal power dynamics of Hollywood more harshly than any other film in recent memory. When a seething, raging Sandler hisses “You’re not my friend, I fucking pay you!” at Seth Rogen, it’s a rip-the-scab-off moment of chilling honesty about the relationship between the celebrity and the underling, and a moment as powerfully dramatic as any “respectable” movie that came out that year. For Sandler to make the lazy-ass easy payday of Grown-Ups as his next feature feels a right betrayal.

This movie isn’t Adam Sandler’s redemption, but it does seem to come from a different artistic place than his recent dreck. Lines that would come off as smarmy laziness in another film seem to be delivered with more a sense of ease and character. Shades of difference, I know, but the proof is up there on the screen. An early scene actually sets the tone with surprising pathos. His childhood genius potential knocked back a peg or dozen, Sandler arrives at a suburban DC house in a demeaning uniform and sad mandated patter to hook up a huge entertainment centre, and finds himself commiserating with a divorced, daytime-drinking Monaghan about failed relationships, and the toll they can take on one’s life trajectory.  It doesn’t spell out the movie’s arc in flashy letters, it doesn’t degenerate into gross-out spectacle (just some sarcasm that’s actually quite earned), it just establishes two people for whom life didn’t work out like they planned, and treats each character fairly in a quiet moment of subtle performance.

Of course quiet moments aren’t long for this world and the craziness kicks in shortly thereafter. If anything, that craziness greases the wheels for the movie to work on an acting level, by atvovermindnd large. Everyone seems to be having fun actually making the damn ridiculous thing, and the fun becomes a bit infectious. To watch Peter Dinklage, who brings a classy elegance to every. Single. Syllable. he speaks on Game of Thrones, cut loose as a mulleted  felon battling digital monsters with a Men In Black rifle then trying to mount Serena Williams, isn’t to observe a great actor slumming, it’s observing him relaxed, cutting loose and enjoying the hell out of the ride.  Kevin James as the President, Sandler’s childhood friend done good, might read like a one-note gag, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t come across as a decent guy who just got sucked into the cogs of the government machine and genuinely wants to do right by the country even if he is in over his head.

In the director’s chair, Chris Columbus goes back to a familiar well. The helmer of the original Home Alone obviously has a knack for cartoonish obstacle course-like kiddie violence, which is the exact tack this plot needs, and is a refreshing pull back from the impulse towards schmaltz that led him down the Mrs. Doubtfire/Stepmom/everything else he directed in the 90’s path. He’s earned some slack from the moviegoing public. After all, having taken the reins for the launch of the Harry Potter cinematic universe, Columbus showed an uncanny eye for casting and as a result set a veritable gaggle of crazily talented young British thesps on the path to stardom.  I’ll forgive him the mawkish sincerity of Rent for his wisdom in listening to the agents that tossed the headshots of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint his way. Working from a script by Timothy Dowling and Sandler go-to scribe Tim Herlihy, based on a short film by Patrick Jean,  Columbus actually cuts loose a little with some inspired weirdness here. A U.S. Army lab tech who happens to be a cyborg with a plexiglass skull. A Steven Moffat-esque reveal of POTUS’s secret service detail the first time we learn who it is that James is playing. A penultimate gag involving two celebrities playing themselves, apparently game for anything. Rarely does one see a big-budget movie with this much “why not?” spirit that doesn’t come across as messed up by committee.

It’s not…okay, the sentence “it’s not a perfect film” felt wrong even as I was typing it, and I hope I haven’t led anyone to think that’s where I’m going with all this. Flaws abound, I’ll readily admit. A simple google search would have nullified a few dozen anachronistic 80’s references. A comic post-battle beat featuring Sean Bean and Brian Cox is a hackneyed throwback. And Josh Gad (seriously, Sony, take the dollar!) wears out his welcome more with each scene without a satisfactory payoff.

But Pixels succeeds against the odds. It manages to be both enjoyable spectacle, vicarious wish-fulfilment and frothy fun, while setting sly comic actors careening off each other in interesting ways. By those standards, considering how few summer hits succeed at any one of those goals, it’s a howling success.

Greg Payne
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