Here's a shocker: In Pixels, his latest, Adam Sandler plays a stunted man-child who turns out to be very, very special. That's his ecological niche: the Manic Potbellied Dream Dork, or, if you prefer, the fragile Sand-Man. Sandler films have predictable scripts: In two hours or less, he'll transform from loser to hero, often tacking on an improbable girlfriend, and often without transforming at all. (An Oscar for the first costume designer who gets him to wear a shirt that fits.) Instead, it's everyone else in the cast who must about-face and appreciate him. And if we don't admire him fast enough, he'll call us snobs.
Sandler didn't invent snobs-versus-slobs comedy. He didn't even perfect it. But he's conquered the genre by refusing to age out of it. He gets older, but his inner dork stays the same age. Pixels, directed by King of the Kiddos Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Adventures in Babysitting), freezes Sandler as preteen video game legend Sam Brenner, whose life peaked when he placed second in a Donkey Kong championship. An egomaniac named Eddie (Peter Dinklage, channeling Billy Mitchell in the superior doc King of Kong) took first, crushing Sam's dreams with a barrel. If you've followed Sandler's insensitive misadventures on the set of his cowboys-and-Indians spoof The Ridiculous 6, the good news is Pixels doesn't make a single joke about Dinklage's height. The bad news is, it doesn't even acknowledge his majestic, blond-streaked mullet, the most outrageous head of hair since Fabio.
Sam's a failure. His polo shirt literally reads "Nerd." But in Sandler's world, failures always win. Just look at his childhood best friend, Will Cooper (Kevin James). He's an illiterate loudmouth, and he still grew up to be president. Implausible? Absolutely. But Columbus includes a familiar classroom scene of President Cooper bumbling through a children's book to remind us that morons can succeed — just 15 years ago, real-life voters made it happen. (And, god forbid, might again.) Outside the school, citizens vilify their commander-in-chief. Only in a Sandler film, where the star's self-esteem is the highest priority, would the president be less concerned about leading the country than he is fixing his best friend, advising him that in today's world, his arcade skills are as futile as "being a great blacksmith."
Luckily, ego and approval ratings intertwine when the planet Volula mistakenly interprets a VHS tape of Sam's Donkey Kong competition, shot out to space for lord only knows what reason, as a declaration of war. The aliens invade Earth with weapons they believe we'll understand: Galaga drones, giant centipedes, skyscraper-gobbling Tetris blocks, and angry-pickle escapees from Burger Time. (In the movie's best joke, they also use 1980s celebs to communicate: Reagan, Tammy Faye, and, offscreen, the "Where's the Beef?" granny.) If Sam, Eddie, and buddy Ludlow (Josh Gad) can't best the Volulans two out of three, Earth is lost.
There's a perverse humor in the backflips Pixels does to let these pinball gizzards prove their worth. Sam, Eddie, and Ludlow are so giddy abut sticking it to those useless, musclebound Marines that Armageddon feels like a goof. Even they aren't serious about the stakes. When Michelle Monaghan's lieutenant colonel, Sam's love interest, asks if the government should place all its trust in him, Sam whines, "I don't know if I wanna do it now — she's being kind of mean."
To Sandler, this is flirting. He's never evolved past the "Ew! Cooties!" phase of courtship, but onscreen that always lands him a babe. And Columbus indulges his delusions, forcing Monaghan to play a role that's equal parts tough soldier, lonelyheart, and mommy. In one of her romantic scenes, she coos to Sandler, "You brushed your teeth!" What, was "You went potty!" too erotic? Worse, in Pixels, women are rewards: If the guys save the world, their prize is a beauty — even Eddie's fantasy of a threesome with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart. Kudos, I suppose, to Williams and Stewart for braving a cameo.
At least the space invaders look great. Zapped humans dissolve in a Picassoesque swirl of cubes, face last so we can hear their screams. Q*bert appears, acting as generic as a sassy cartoon dog. (Apparently, his "@!#?@!" translates to a PG-13 approved "Bull crap!") There's a glint of pathos when Pac-Man's inventor (Denis Akiyama) is crushed to see his creation chomping Manhattan. "Deep down, he's kind, gentle," whimpers his Dr. Iwatani. A final battle of Donkey Kong with five levels of ladders and a furious gorilla is as scary as this movie dares get. I sucked in my breath — that game is deadly — and then grumbled to realize that Pixels wasn't going to bother actually following the rules.
Still, Sandler is following his own rules: Every year, he's gotta star in an expensive, anti-intellectual gasbag that anoints him the Best Boy in the World. And audiences are running out of quarters. It's time to take higher-level advice from Eddie the Donkey Kong conquerer: "Playing by the patterns doesn't do the trick anymore."