Critics are cruel to Adam Sandler but are they wrong to single him out? Sure, he’s the antithesis of an artist, unashamedly nepotistic and cynical; a peddler of beer and pizza cinema, happy to vomit up misogyny and scatology as a substitute for wit; an infantile occupant of screen space, content to bolt together low grade movie product to an audience presumed semi-retarded and docile – but in this is he not modern Hollywood distilled?
Pixels may be just the latest in a long line of Sandler vehicles to run off the production line with the wheels loose and the battery flat, but there’s a certain honesty in its awfulness; a naked stupidity that many other summer movies would waste time trying to hide behind carefully pre-vised set piece action and dropped in character sketches. The mountebanks behind Chris Columbus’s movie know it’s product, brazenly programmed to appeal to old gamers with mortgages and their postmodern, ADHD afflicted offspring, so why waste time pretending otherwise?
Politeness demands, for we expect some kind of arc for the main characters, that there’s a love interest (rather than a woman in her own right) and redemption opportunity for the hero, a comeuppance for his rival, and a vicarious victory for the obese geek, the audience proxy, who dreams of an idealised feminoid – an obsession with physical perfection, typical of all the male characters in the movie, that presumably has retarded his sexuality and made finding a girlfriend who isn’t made of voxels impossible. This lip service to characterisation is the bare minimum required to differentiate a movie from a visual effects showcase.
For some flicks this would be the start of the creative journey; multiple script drafts adding layer upon layer of detail until dimensional humans spouting smart dialogue graced the page, enablers and witnesses to propulsive action. For Pixels it’s the end. Those on Sandler watch know that the 8 bit representations of jokes used to establish the barely human agents in the non-story that follows are all there is and ever will be. The rest, unfortunately for those hoping to once again know the joy of sitting in a cinema full of laughter, is silence.
The template is very loosely Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters, a movie with triple the IQ and ten times the charm, that the half-wits behind Pixels are so desperate to evoke, though with the minimum of effort, that they insert Dan Aykroyd into the movie’s opening. But a quick contrast with the ‘80’s classic only serves to illustrate how barren Columbus’s film is by comparison. Ghostbusters had a story, it took time to establish its characters and set up its premise. In Pixels the gamers fighting to save the world have specially made uniforms just hours after they’ve proved their gaming credentials (the government has a prescient tailor) and the opening act, intercutting between an alien attack and Sandler torpidly coming on to Michelle Monaghan in her closet, plays like two different movies. Neither work.
Columbus handles the nifty visual effects well, but one wonders what he made of the human contingent; a company that didn’t need him and in any event probably directed themselves, if lazy interaction between friends requires instruction. Sandler’s lethargy really cuts through and the disinterest is contagious. He delivers his put downs and lady-hating asides like a man woken seconds before each take. If Kevin James as the least likely President of the US since George W. Bush, is worse, a man who thinks he’s being funny shouting and smearing his maw with cake, then at lease Josh Gad has a little energy. Too bad it’s absorbed into the movie’s creative vacuum before it can be utilised.
But Pixels is only really notable for being a kind of schlub’s fantasy writ large – a movie in which the barely communicative underachiever gets the girl he’s patronised for two hours, where a social degenerate can literally bag a trophy girlfriend, and in which a man made of clumsiness, beer and flatulence can be president. Perhaps the latter is a wry piece of political satire, a joke about America’s propensity to elect idiots, but the movie entire represents something more; it’s a note on how undiscerning summer audiences are now imagined to be by some of the laziest filmmakers on the scene. Cheap heroics and colourful spectacle is thought to do it. Offence is mandatory, and very much taken, but are these junk peddlers so far off? Hollywood’s the laziest it’s ever been; it’s the perfect environment for Sandler and co. to thrive. Perhaps if we took an interest in adult stories he and those like him would find themselves at a loose end. Need you any more encouragement?