I was prepared for “Adam Sandler saves the world, not despite the fact but because of the fact that he is a good-for-nothing slacker whose primary talent is excellence at videogames, and even at that he peaked in middle school more than 30 years ago.” I was prepared because Pixels has been gleeful in its promotion that this is what it is about, and also because — as I have noted before — there is nothing that men cannot do, or fail to do, that Hollywood will not find a way to depict as heroic. This goes triple for Adam Sandler (Men, Women & Children, Top Five). I thought we had achieved the ultimate Sandler celebration of himself with Grown Ups and its even more inexplicable sequel, both of which are nothing more than Sandler and his actual offscreen buddies lounging around in their underwear and making juvenile comments about women and gays and anyone with meaningful work and actual adult relationships without even bothering with even half-assed attempts at punchlines, as if the mere fact that Sandler got someone to front him millions of dollars to put that onscreen were joke enough.
Pixels can only be the result of Sandler’s absolute astonishment that he got away with that, so he figured he would double down and see what further multimillion-dollar outrage he perpetuate. Slapping together the most ridiculous science-fiction scenario ever would be only the beginning. That scenario is this: Aliens intercept a NASA probe (not an “orbiter,” as someone who should know better here calls it) that includes film of a 1982 arcade console game competition and misinterpret it as a declaration of war, sending attackers that look and act like Donkey Kong or Pac-Man or Centipede, only deadly. And the only man who can possible defeat the aliens is a champion of that 1982 contest, which just so happens to be a barely disguised version of Adam Sandler. (“Sam Brenner” is played as a youngster by Anthony Ippolito.)
This is Sandler fellating himself, with the inexplicable help of director Chris Columbus (Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, I Love You, Beth Cooper), who clearly imagined that if he was going to have any kind of legacy, he was going to have to start down the opposite path from the chasing-Spielberg one he started out on.
Still, this is nothing more than what I had been expecting. Pixels, it is clear even from afar, is the sort of vanity project that represents everything that is wrong with Hollywood. There are hungry young filmmakers out there with amazing ideas for fresh new sorts of stories, and they can’t get a comparatively few pennies of funding for their little movies that might bust open paradigms and create whole new movie stars and bring people back to multiplexes. But Adam Sandler sits in a conference room in L.A. and describes how he wants to jerk off in front of a camera, and 26-year-old studio vice presidents yell “Shut up and take our money!”
But “Adam Sandler saves the world” wasn’t enough. Sam Brenner also has to be some sort of genius unappreciated in his time; this word, genius, is mentioned several times with reference to Sam, with a sad pity for a world that cannot see what he has to offer. Sam is not only a “genius,” but he also has “skills.” These “skills” are apparently not about playing Pac-Man, and also apparently not about his current employment as the guy you pay the big-box store to come to your house to set up your new home-theater system. Not that that isn’t a skill, but it’s not a world-changing thing, and really, anyone can do it if they read the manuals. So what sort of genius skills does Sam have? We have no idea.
But it gets worse. Sandler’s Sam behaves in a wildly inappropriate way with Lieutenant Colonel Violet McHottie* (Michelle Monaghan: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Machine Gun Preacher), the actually brilliant and capable military genius who will design the weapons that will be deployed against the aliens. He is crude, rude, insulting, and lacking in basic personal hygiene — this last is explicitly discussed, as is he were an adorably wayward child who has to be forced to take a bath — and she will be won over by him. Of course she will: he is Adam Sandler, and who could resist him?
Pixels goes the extra mile when it comes to being a vile vomitous mass of sexism and male sexual entitlement. Naturally there are “jokes” — more than one — about a “slut-seeking missile.” (Also naturally: anyone here who is reasonable, logical, well-socialized, and just basically an adult is rendered as a villain, or at least hopelessly deluded about what real-world success looks like.) That’s just typical Sandler. But Pixels also literally awards women as trophies to men: Sam’s pal Ludlow (Josh Gad: The Wedding Ringer, Frozen) gets to keep the mute personification of the videogame character he has lusted after since childhood, “Lady Lisa” (Ashley Benson: 13 Going on 30), heroine of the game Dojo Quest. (This isn’t a real 80s game but one invented for the movie, because apparently real videogames haven’t done a good enough job of overly sexualizing women.) She is an overt trophy — she is called a trophy — a reward from the invaders for winning a battle. And Pixels also suggests — and this is not an exaggeration of what happens onscreen — that tennis superstar Serena Williams and domestic goddess Martha Stewart are prostitutes bought by the U.S. federal government to be given as a sexual reward, in exchange for payment to the women, to another arcade champion who helps fight off the invasion, played by Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones, X-Men: Days of Future Past) why o why o why o why o why?**
And I haven’t even gotten to the worst thing about Pixels yet.
The worst thing about Pixels, the thing that — if I recall correctly, though I am trying to forget the entire experience of watching this movie — made my jaw actually drop open in despair, is this: The President of the United States is played by Kevin James. Not “in a surprisingly dramatic turn for an actor that heralds a new direction for his career, like, wow, I had no idea Kevin James had that in him.” No: it’s the same old Kevin James, the allegedly lovable everyman galoot who’s incompetent and clumsy and actually pretty stupid but basically supposedly a decent guy even though there’s little evidence for that unless getting through the day without accidentally killing anyone qualifies as human decency. It’s Paul Blart, mall cop as the President of the United States. Who also gets to help save the world with his videogame skills, because his best friend is Sandler’s Sam and they loved videogames together as kids. Which makes Sandler’s eternal adolescent a military advisor to the President of the United States… and this is depicted a good and necessary thing. It’s the guys from Grown Ups shoving it in your face how awesome and excellent they are, again, except now they’ve concocted a story in which the entire planet is worshipping them and is eternally in their debt.
I dread to wonder what Sandler has in mind for when he next commits cinema. Sandler as God?
*not the character’s name, but it might as well be
**my “why o why” refers to the unaccountable presence here of Dinklage as well as those of Williams and Stewart, who actually appear as themselves