Imagine if eating Doritos, making fart sounds with your hands, rolling your eyes at your mom or something else you’d effortlessly mastered as a snotty seventh grader was the key to saving the world. Actually, you probably wouldn’t imagine such a scenario, because that’s not just a lazy fantasy, but a fantasy about laziness, and when most of us envision ourselves being the best that we can be, it’s not because we want to put in the least amount of effort and growth possible.
Perhaps it should be expected, though, that Adam Sandler, the movie star many of us most readily associate with creative sloth and arrested development, stars in a space-invader movie in which all the hero has to do is play video games from his childhood.
Sure, the live-action versions of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Centipede require some real-life gun-zapping and platform-jumping, but the point of “Pixels” — other than some genuinely thrilling special effects of matter evaporating into digitized blocks of confetti — is the dumb message that guys who peaked in middle school totally deserve hot girlfriends because of their awesome gaming skills.
“Pixels” begins like many a Sandler film, with a crisis of masculinity framed in cheap, utilitarian camera work (from director Chris Columbus). Schlubby tech set-up guy Brenner (Sandler) gets upset when his beautiful, emotionally vulnerable customer Violet (Michelle Monaghan) rebuffs his attempt to kiss her in her closet, where she’d been drinking and weeping about her impending divorce.
Instead of slinking away for being a shady creeper, he’s eager to show Violet, who happens to be a high-ranking military officer, that she should have made out with her handyman all along because his childhood buddy happens to be the president (Kevin James, bringing just slightly more dignity to the Oval Office than Donald Trump would).
The silver medalist at the 1982 Worldwide Video Arcade Championship, Brenner is the first to figure out the script’s moronic conceit, that aliens are attacking Earth through the form of old-school video games. Brenner, his former rival (Peter Dinklage) and a fellow video-game prodigy (Josh Gad) from the old days are then recruited by the military to fight the space invaders, because this version of America apparently contains only three people who have ever played arcade games.
There’s a six-minute sketch on the classic animated series “Futurama” with the same exact scenario, and Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling’s script — adapted from a short by Patrick Jean — fails to bring anything new to the table. Gad gets to show off his ace comic timing, while Dinklage is frequently amusing as a mulleted convict who talks like a ’70s pimp.
But “Pixels” is ultimately a thoroughly numbing experience, not least because all the characters are doomed by a psychological flatness more two-dimensional than any arcade-game screen. Even by the standards of a B-movie, “Pixels” sinks because Sandler’s nasty, punch-down insult comedy is aimed at anyone who isn’t a “good guy.” Fat guys get fat jokes, female divorcees are generalized as ugly, and one older, supposedly not-hot-enough woman is compared to Gandalf. (The only ones who escape these jokes are Serena Williams and Martha Stewart, who appear as themselves and apparently got deals protecting them from the film’s “screw everyone who isn’t exactly like me” ethos.)
Sandler may have signed on to “Pixels” to cash in on fading nostalgia for the ’80s and Reagan era-set cultural products (like his own “Wedding Singer”). But the film’s aggressive self-pity, abrasive insularity, and repellent male entitlement — however seemingly benign their iteration here — speak to the contemporary video-game culture, too.
If there’s a sequel, they can subtitle it “Revenge of the Nerds Who Don’t Realize They’ve Already Won.”
For the record: A previous version of this post misidentified Patrick Jean. TheWrap regrets the error.