For 15 or so glorious minutes, Peter Dinklage takes over and hilariously dominates “Pixels,” an Adam Sandler comedy saddled with the wrong star.
For four or five minutes, here and there, Josh Gad dials up the wacky.
And “Pixels,” a comedy about 1980s video arcade kings who learn their “useless” skills and life-wasting obsession are the only thing that can save the Earth when video game villains of alien origin menace the planet, isn’t the worst idea (from a Patrick Jean short film) for a Sand-man comedy. It’s kid-friendly and goofy and like Sandler, oh-so-80s.
But building it around Sandler, his tired wig and exhausted shtick — his character’s go-to joke is noting how this woman looks like Gandalf, that kid like Harry Potter or that military man reminds him of a movie character — “Lighten up, General Zod” — was a mistake. You can tell that much, just from the commercials and trailers.
The kid-friendly Chris Columbus, of “Home Alone/Harry Potter” fame, sets this up with an adorably retro 1982 introduction. Kids gather at a new local arcade for a championship face-off. Kiddie versions of Sam (soon to be Sandler), Fireblaster Eddie (Andrew Bambridge, very good at channeling the young Dinklage) and Ludlow (Gad as an adult) trash talk and battle it out over “Space Invaders,” “Asteroids” and “Donkey Kong.”
That event, we are told, is being videotaped as a representative moment of the culture — like the mullet haircut Fireblaster sports. NASA is sending it into space on a probe.
Cut to 30some years later, and the game Galaga attacks a U.S. military base in Guam. Aliens have seen the probe and challenged Earth to a do-or-die series of matches. Only the bumbling president (Kevin James) sees this. Only his childhood pal, Sam, now a home electronics installer, can save us. Well, Sam and the conspiracy nut formerly known as “Wonder Boy” (Gad) and the swaggering scam artist and King of Donkey Kong, Fireblaster (Dinklage), now in prison.
Michelle Monaghan plays a military officer at the White House and love interest for Sam, Brian Cox is head of the Joint Chiefs, Sean Bean shows up as a no-nonsense Brit, Jane Krakowski has nothing to do as First Lady and assorted Sandler hangers-on (Dan Patrick, shameless) pop in for jokes that don’t work.
The way the aliens communicate with us — their death threats delivered in altered video featuring icons of the ’80s — Reagan, Madonna, Hall & Oates — is a hoot.
Gad’s bipolar Ludlow gets off a few zingers — barking at Navy SEALS.
“Are you SOLDIERS, or the cast of ‘Magic Mike’?”
But the reason “Pixels” exists is for that magic 15 minutes when they find Fireblaster in prison, where Dinkage swaggers into the frame and negotiates the terms of his help — “my own island” and a White House Lincoln bedroom “sandwich” with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart. A visual you won’t forget — Dinklage, in a Mini Cooper S, facing down a gigantic Pacman in the streets of New York.
The 3D adds little, and the hallmarks of the Chris Columbus directing “style” are generic unevenness and luck. With a little of the latter, this could be a huge hit. But with a better star, sharper script and more Dinklage, it could have been a champ. Failing that, “Pixels” feels like “Game over.”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language and suggestive comments
Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Monaghan, Josh Gad
Credits: Directed by Chris Columbus, script by Tim Herlihy and
Timothy Dowling . A Columbia/Sony release.
Running time: 1:45