By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Aug 08, 2015 at 12:06 PM

The following statement is praise so faint that it could function as a dog whistle, but "Pixels" feels like the closest an Adam Sandler project has come to resembling an actual movie since around the start of the Obama administration.

There’s an actual premise beyond "Adam Sandler would like to go to Africa" or "Adam Sandler would like to hang out with his friends," and, as a bonus, it doesn’t sound like it was inspired by one of his fake movie posters from "Funny People." You can even detect some rare effort on screen – or at least from the special effects team and some of Sandler’s co-stars.

But before we begin the celebratory end game credits to "Pixels" for clearing the bar loftily set on the floor by the likes of "Blended" and the duo of "Grown Ups" movies, there’s one sad key fact ominously looming over the movie and raining down defeat like a cinematic Donkey Kong: This is still an Adam Sandler movie at heart, unfortunately crafted to showcase the current disinterested husk of the former "SNL" star and his depleted sense of humor. It's a task on par with crafting a dinner to showcase the flavor of the table.

As it stands, in video game terms, there’s just enough around making up for Sandler to prevent "Pixels" from being as apocalyptic as "E.T." for the Atari 2600 or "Superman 64." However, it’s not much better than his "Duke Nukem Forever," another instance of outdated juvenile laziness wrapped in nostalgia putting forward a convincing argument for finally moving on from its star. At least "Pixels" didn’t take over a decade to spit out.

Sandler stars as Sam Brenner, a former video game whiz in the ’80s now stuck working as a hapless Geek Squad employee and lamenting life with his childhood best friend Will Cooper (Kevin James). In a plot point somehow more insultingly implausible than a Trump presidency, James’ Cooper also happens to be the President of the United States.

It may sound like a parody of an Adam Sandler movie (no, Rob Schneider thankfully does not play the Speaker of the House) but in the world of "Pixels," a questionably literate goofy schlub of a president and a khaki shorts clad Best Buy employee allowed to loiter around the Oval Office and Situation Room is just what the world needs when a fleet of aliens begins attacking the globe in the form of ’80s video games. 

First Galaga destroys a military base in Guam; then some Breakout paddles dismantle the Taj Mahal. With Pac-Man and more on deck, Cooper tasks Brenner to team up with an old gamer buddy turned basement-dwelling conspiracy nut Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), Brenner’s old rival Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage) and unamused lieutenant colonel Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan) to save the world from pixilation.

The poppy nostalgia-drenched premise arrives from a two-minute mini-disaster movie/FX reel by Patrick Jean. However, in the hands of longtime Sandler writer Tim Herlihy – and co-writer Timothy Dowling – Jean’s playful and clever little clip merely serves as a "Face/Off"-style mask surgically applied to hide the movie’s real identity and personality, that being just another vehicle for Sandler’s now signature brand of half-hearted entertainment and self-flattering tributes to bro-ish schlub-dom.  

All of the hallmarks are there, starting mainly with its sense of humor that can barely be bothered to show up, much less flirt with the concept of wit or a punchline. "Have you been playing ‘Space Invaders?’ Because you’re invading my space," is about the closest "Pixels" comes to resembling clever wordplay. The rest of the jokes are just as tediously predictable or lifelessly blunt. British people talk funny! Nerds are awkward! Old people exercising is silly! You can often hear the lame punchlines thud before the script is even finished setting them up.

Meanwhile, Sandler’s material consists of his now usual repertoire of limply hurling weak fifth-grade level insults, like calling a snobby person "Snobby" or calling someone following him "Stalky" (save some wit for the rest of us, guys!). When the script’s feeling particularly clever, it tosses some cheap, easy references into the name-calling, like calling a person with glasses Harry Potter. Almost none of it lands as a joke; instead, most of it just registers as mean-spirited and weirdly defensive, mocking anyone who dares to not be Adam Sandler or love him enough.

Speaking of loving Sandler, another one of his movies’ standard trademarks – sexist attitudes toward women – makes an appearance in "Pixels" as well, somehow managing to out-regress "Blended" and "Grown Ups 2."

The arc between Sandler and Monaghan’s Violet – a careerist woman eye-rollingly charmed over time by a lovable doofus – would be worth an eye-roll of its own just for being predictable and cliché. The way it plays out, however, comes with a bonus MRA-approved sourness, with Sandler spending most of the first half chiding Monaghan for being snooty – AKA turning down his advances – and not appreciating nice guys enough. This all coming from a guy who, before seeing her, assumes her impending divorce is because she’s turned ugly and who later charms her by insulting the other woman for not being physically perfect enough. Nevermind that; by the end, she’s adequately transformed into fawning over his everyschmoe heroics and guzzling Bud Light like a beer commercial dream girl.  

She doesn’t even get the worst of it. Tennis star Serena Williams shows up for an extended cameo, deservingly eye-rolling at Dinklage’s boorish character until the script degrades the champion athlete (and … Martha Stewart?) into his sex prize. And even that’s damn near bra burning compared to the character of Lady Lisa (Ashley Benson of "Pretty Little Liars"), Gad’s Maxim cover-dressed video game love interest who is literally called a trophy by the end of the movie. It should come as no surprise that she gets exactly zero lines of dialogue.

Yet nothing is as insulting as the fact that "Pixels" casts the hilarious Jane Krakowski ("30 Rock," "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt") to play James’ doting wife with a total of about four lines – none of which could be confused for jokes. OK, that’s not sexist, but handing her a less significant role than the token Dan Patrick cameo is just goddamn wasteful. 

There is a plot here, but it’s just as sloppy and lazy as Sandler’s supposed zingers. Even pushing aside the ridiculousness of, say, tech simpleton Sandler making routine visits to President Kevin James’ White House, the actual alien threat is clunky and clumsy. Despite the fate of the globe at risk, Herlihy and Dowling’s screenplay just lazily stumbles into battles without much urgency. That might work if your leading crew is on par with "Ghostbusters" – the obvious inspiration here, complete with a Dan Aykroyd cameo – but Sandler and his doltish crew here do not make particularly amusing fight intermission fodder.

By the end of the movie, Herlihy and Dowling even manage to contradict and break their own dimly assembled and barely established rules. President Paul Blart emerges fighting on the main lines (wearing a wookie mask, natch) like a dumber "Independence Day." Pixilated enemies transform into real-life beings whatever the screenplay sees fit. Characters are able to use cheat codes in real life … and teleport?

There’s a robot just hanging out and working with the government because … that’s a damn fine question, "Pixels," considering there is no joke or even point connected to him. Despite the movie's insistence on featuring video game logic in reality, the climactic game of Donkey Kong degrades into something far from the original game, with hammer throwing and platform-bounding the original game would never allow. Then again, maybe that’s expecting too much loyalty from the same movie that feels the need to elaborately explain the rules of Pac-Man and Asteroids. 

And yet even with all of that inconsistent rule-breaking and baffling stupidity, "Pixels" still remains utterly predictable, with no surprises, stakes or character development in sight.

There’s at least a few things fighting to keep the movie alive. The premise has some inherently charming nostalgic fizz to it – especially when you throw a decent retro ’80s soundtrack behind it. And while first-time Sandler collaborator and "Home Alone" director Chris Columbus isn’t a particularly strong director – there’s a scene where Monaghan shows up to an event in a beautiful dress, and he botches it impressively hard, shooting it in a medium close-up – he's definitely an improvement over the usual dead-eyed dullness of past Sandler projects. When it comes to slamming beloved video games into the real world, he and the effects team has some fun coming up with ways to breaking buildings with Tetris blocks and having the Joust ostriches break apart monuments.

Gad is stuck shrieking and yelling some dim material, but he’s at least selling the jokes with energy – so much so he scores a laugh or two out of mere squeaking exasperated effort. The same goes for Dinklage, channeling notorious real-life gamer villain Billy Mitchell and … some weird Southern plantation owner drawl, for some reason. It doesn’t really work, but once again, there’s an attempt there, and Dinklage is never bad to have around – even when the material is childishly crude (nothing screams bright child-friendly action adventure quite like ending on an implied threesome joke).

And hey, Mitchell's nice guy rival from "The King of Kong" Steve Wiebe even makes a barely there cameo as a scientist. So that's something.

In the end, however, an Adam Sandler movie comes down to Adam Sandler, and the dude and his motley crew could not care less. His jokes are wimpy, his delivery is tired, and it seems all too fitting that Sandler’s character likes ’80s video games because they have patterns to follow and beat, not out of any passion and genuine love for the characters or games.

Even for its slight improvements on the Sandler brand, "Pixels" sure plays like the comedian is finally down to his last life, and he’s run out of quarters.  

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.