It seems like only yesterday Adam Sandler existed as the film critic's number one punching bag—a handy benchmark to use when identifying just how low a movie could sink. It should seem more than fitting, then, that like much of Sandler's material, this joke has grown incredibly stale.
While movie-going audiences certainly don't seem to mind, the days of Adam Sandler surprising us with performances in films like Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People are long over. Every year, his film production company Happy Madison spawns some new, terrible creation (or several) guaranteed to punch down at easy targets with the most tired jokes available—or, in the case of Grown-Ups and Blended, he and his famous friends take a weeks-long vacation under the guise of filming an actual movie. Even if you're game for the silly, gross-out humor Sandler specializes in, certain elements of the production indicate a hefty amount of cynicism on his part: Happy Madison's movies over the past five years have used product placement on such egregious levels that said products are usually tied into the plots themselves.
There's only so much to be said about Sandler's style of filmmaking, which explains why critics have stopped reacting so violently to new Happy Madison releases. And, refreshingly, it appears there's a limit to how low he can go: Trotting out old, racist jabs at Native Americans that wouldn't even make an episode of F Troop—and under the disingenuous guise of "sending them up"—has proven even his lowest-common-denominator comedy has its boundaries.
Sandler's latest movie, Pixels, feels a lot more inspired than the one-note premises that powered his most recent productions—but that could be because he's borrowing from some reliable sources. Essentially, it's The Last Starfighter meets Ghostbusters, which you can see for yourself in the trailer below.
Keeping in mind that trailers usually include the best bits, admittedly, there's some inspired jokes. Including Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani (being played by an actor, of course) is a nice touch, and a far cry from the generic Japanese businessmen that show up at the end of the dreadful Super Mario Bros. And I was actually surprised to see the joke involving Iwatani had nothing to do with him being Japanese! (Don't blame me for expecting the worst—Sandler can do that to a guy.)
There's a lot you can do with the subject of video games, and Pixels doesn't appear to be doing all that much. Of course, I wasn't shocked to see the most popular video game characters revealed as the movie's villains—the writing in Sandler movies tends to be reliably broad—but it feels particularly insulting to have his character personally identify these creations by name, as if the audience needs to be reintroduced to Namco's round, yellow guy with a big mouth and a bigger appetite. Yeah, the "Donkey Kong" line could be a callback to Billy Madison, but to me it reads more like, "Hey dum-dums! Remember this guy?"
Even though I don't expect anything inspired to come from Happy Madison, as someone invested in the source material—I do help run a podcast about gaming history, after all—I can tell the people behind Pixels probably aren't. The wonderful Wreck-It-Ralph went for a much more thoughtful approach, and didn't just pull from a bag of The Most Recognizable Things; hell, the movie's tour of video game references (ones a little more inspired than those in Pixels) barely persisted past the first act. I expect a lot more from a director like Rich Moore, of course, but this Disney animated film could have been nothing more than 90 minutes of references—sending its audience into a fit of elbow-nudging glee. In fact, that's the reason I didn't really care for Scott Pilgrim in comic or movie form—yes, I'm one of those people. The most I got from its many game references—and some obscure ones at that—was "Oh, wasn't that clever." Not "This thing gets me!"
And this may seem like a minor nit to pick, but Pixel's nostalgia just seems dated to me. Granted, Sandler chose some pretty timeless characters to feature in this movie, but a throwback to the early '80s would have been more appropriate 10 or 15 years ago, when you couldn't wander past a Hot Topic without seeing countless shirts branded with some variant on the Atari 2600 joystick. (And let's not forget, Sandler's The Wedding Singer kind of kicked off the '80s nostalgia boom that's inexplicably still with us 18 years later.) And I really don't think this is a case of Sandler—who entered puberty during the Golden Age of Arcades—falling back on his favorite games; once again, it's Happy Madison going for the widest reach possible, which doesn't bode well. It's also a little disturbing that so many of these jokes seemed ripped from the "Raiders of the Lost Arcade" segment from the Futurama episode "Anthology of Interest II"—which aired over 13 years ago. I'm not accusing Sandler and his writers of plagiarism, of course, but it's more than apparent that all the jokes you can make out of this scenario have already been made.
I understand that not every movie need to be for me, and my disappointment over Pixels isn't devastating or anything—at this point, it would take some serious convincing to get me emotionally invested in a Happy Madison production. And while Pixels looks more inspired than a story about Sandler and his aging SNL buddies goofin' about, it still smacks of the typical Happy Madison style of broad jokes and little effort. An expected outcome, but as someone deeply invested in video games, I really wish someone out there would try a little harder. We've come a long way since the days when cultural relevance seemed so impossible that we'd cheerfully accept any piece of media that nodded in our direction.