A common complaint about the recent films of Adam Sandler and Kevin James is that they seem to be using their projects as glorified vacations, making minimal efforts just so they have an excuse to goof around in places like South Africa (“Blended”), Las Vegas (“Paul Blart 2”) and New England (“Grown Ups”). “Pixels” might be just as self-indulgent as these other films, but this time it’s not so much about traveling to an interesting location as it is about living out their fantasies onscreen. I can’t say I blame Sandler and James for choosing to do a movie where Sandler gets to save the world playing video games and James gets to play the President of the United States, but I wish they were doing so in a more thoughtful project.
Sandler plays Brenner, a former child video game prodigy who was able to instantly recognize the patterns necessary to conquer game after game. But ever since he lost a major tournament he’s been a loser, not getting into a good college and having a dead-end job installing electronics. But at least he’s still the drinking buddy of President Cooper (James), a friend from childhood who is obviously doing better, though crumbling under the scrutiny of the position.
Earth falls under attack from aliens who represent themselves with blocks of energy that take the form of famous video game characters from the early 80s. They do this because of a far-fetched backstory involving friendly communication being taken as a declaration of war and for some reason the aliens think they need to fight us in the form of giant real-life games. The aliens challenge Earth to a best-of-five series where the winner gets to rule both planets. President Cooper feels he has no choice but to play along, and enlists Brenner to help. Also on the team are Ludlow (Josh Gad), another former child prodigy who’s now a conspiracy nut, and Eddie (Peter Dinklage), who beat Brenner in the video game tournament when they were kids.
The movie is at its best when it doesn’t play as a Sandler/James comedy. In fact, it’s at its best when there’s not much dialogue at all, since any kind of explanation for the ridiculous action is just convoluted babble. But boy is it fun to see the games play out. The major sequences see our heroes do battle in “Centipede,” “Pac Man,” and “Donkey Kong” (Brenner is supposedly really bad at Donkey Kong, but he took the expert Eddie to the limit in a game that lasted over 20 rounds in the tournament). Plus there’s a sequence at the end where Earth is invaded by every character the aliens can muster that I wish went on longer. It also helps that the soundtrack is filled with pump-up 80s songs that work perfectly with the action.
But then there’s the film’s humor, and it’s here where things fall apart for “Pixels.” Sandler plays the part with his usual immaturity (he’s particularly unlikeable in his interaction with a love interest played by Michelle Monaghan) and James is, as always, a bumbler. And unlike with the last “Ice Age” movie, Gad and Dinklage aren’t off the hook either. Gad has always been about an inch away from the Annoying Zone, and here not only does he enter it, he lands with a belly flop. Dinklage can somewhat fall back on the excuse that his character is supposed to be an unlikeable jerk, but did he have to give the character such an excruciating voice?
“Pixels” is a film that could have been so much more. The action sequences are excellent for what they are and there should have been more emphasis on them. But the film is ultimately brought down by being yet another lame Adam Sandler/Kevin James comedy. At least it’s one of the better ones in recent years, but that isn’t saying much.
“Pixels” is rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive comments. Its running time is 105 minutes.