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PIXELS

*1/2

DIRECTED BY Chris Columbus

STARS Adam Sandler, Kevin James

Love the premise, hate the execution. That’s the takeaway from Pixels, which might have made for a decent summer popcorn picture had it not been co-opted by Team Sandler and turned into a piece of junk aimed primarily at unemployable open-mouth breathers who couldn’t spell “nitwit” even if you spotted them the consonants.

It’s based on a short French film from a couple of years back, and that version is reportedly clever and amusing (maybe it will be included as an extra on Pixels’ Blu-ray release?). But this big-budget version is merely moronic and pandering, escaping a one-star bomb rating only because a couple of sequences somehow manage to deliver the goods, because some of the cleverness peeks through on (rare) occasion, and because it’s clearly a notch above the noxious, theater-clearing likes of Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill and Little Nicky.

In a nutshell: Aliens view footage of a 1982 video arcade championship match. Aliens misinterpret it as a hostile act and, in the present day, retaliate by attacking Earth with space invaders made up to look like characters from popular games from back when (Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, etc.).

Since the military proves to be ineffectual, U.S. President Will Cooper (Kevin James) enlists the aid of three championship gamers: his best friend Sam Brenner (Sandler), whose arcade defeat back in ’82 has led to an unfulfilled life as a TV installer; Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), a conspiracy-theory nut who still lives in his grandma’s basement; and Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage), an egotist who refers to himself as “The Fire Blaster.”

Whenever the humans win a round, the aliens provide them with trophies, the most prominent being the beloved character Q*Bert. Q*Bert is seen doing all sorts of cute things meant to elicits awwws from easily amused audience members. He’s also seen pissing orange all over the floor and not seen (thankfully) having sex with Josh Gad’s character.

Since this is a typical man-child wish-fulfillment fantasy, the male leads also get trophies: Sandler hooks up with gorgeous Michelle Monaghan; Gad hooks up with gorgeous Ashley Benson; Dinklage hooks up with a pair of cameo performers whose appearances are mildly amusing.

Speaking of Dinklage, what does it say that he delivers the only funny performance in a movie in which his co-stars are all noted comedians? Sandler is Sandler: shambling, mumbling, easy to take and just as easy to forget. Gad continues to demonstrate that he’s woefully unfunny in film after film (voicing animated snowmen aside, of course), and he somehow thinks that screaming his lines will make them funnier (no, just sadder).

Not much better is James – like Gad, he possesses all the comic instincts of a dead jellyfish.

Often playing like Ghostbusters if it had been made by Billy Bob Thornton’s Slingblade character, Pixels is sloppy in virtually every department, from the scripting (how would our heroes know ahead of time that they would need “ghost” cars to battle Pac-Man, since the ghosts are always the bad guys and Pac-Man is the good guy in the classic game?) to visual effects that could have been memorably retrograde but instead hit the same old CGI beats.

A few moments succeed in rising above the mire – Brenner’s flight from a rampaging Pac-Man is well-orchestrated by director Chris Columbus, and Dinklage’s chosen cadence for his dialogue is both unexpected and amusing. But in virtually every other respect, Pixels is hardly worth a fistful of quarters, let alone full ticket price. To quote Aliens’ Bill Paxton, “Game over, man! Game over!”

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