Instant Family (SEE REVIEW HERE) meets The Three Stooges.
WHO SHOULD GO:
Anyone can go.
There are a number of entertaining films about unlikely parental figures left to care for children. They range from comedies like Little Miss Marker and The Pacifier to serious ones like Gloria and Leon the Professional. Playing With Fire should have been in this list. While it has the same premise as the other movies it lacks a basic essential ingredient – enough plot to carry a feature length film.
Smoke jumpers rescue three children Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), Will (Christian Convery), and Zooey (Finey Rose Slater) left alone in a burning cabin then find they are stuck with them at the station due to a storm and the fact their parents are away on vacation. This was a cute promising premise. Unfortunately they apparently started shooting with no more script than above described. Instead of fleshing out some story they decided to fill most of the time with fart and poop jokes, extended kitsch and twee bits from Key and Leguizamo who adlib long drawn out scenes of: responding to the smell of baby poo, gloat dancing, failed attempts at responding to smart aleck responses from Brynn, and spying/eavesdropping on their boss.
The acting is minimal. The music by Nathan Wang sounds like the canned standards from old cartoons and cheap TV shows. The cinematography features shockingly bad cheap throw backs to 1970’s sitcoms, especially egregious given these were choices made by Dean Semler who was responsible for the spectacular visuals in such varied fare as Dances with Wolves, 2012 and We Were Soldiers. There are an abundance of close-ups during action sequences where the performer “responds” while they are supposedly: slipping through oil, falling, flying on an out of control fire hose, being spun, etc. – an obvious excuse to minimize filming risks or stunt men expenditure.
The amount of poop and fart jokes as well as slip and slide scenes were excessive and lazy attempts to fill the running time.
The finale winds things up in a happy ending with Judy Greer (Ant-Man, Jurassic World and Planet of the Apes) as Amy, a forced love interest, which might have been believable with WAY more back story to the main characters. It looked like the director basically filmed the first draft extended treatment you present to a brainstorming group instead of a well thought out screenplay.
John Cena (WWE and Ferdinand SEE REVIEW HERE) is smoke jumper chief Jake who leads the motley crew. John Leguizamo (who is usually a very good actor in everything from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet to action films like Executive Decision and voice acting in kid movies like Sid the Sloth in the Ice Age franchise) is Rodrigo, the antic bad cook and reluctant pilot. Keegan-Michael Key (of the very funny Key and Peele Youtube shorts) is Mark, Jake’s kitschy-twee right hand yes-man. Tyler Mane (pre- Liv Schreiber Sabretooth from X-Men franchise) is Axe the (almost) completely silent crew member.
I don’t blame the actors though. It looked as though the screen writers (Dan Ewen with pretty much NO other screen credits and Matt Lieberman whose few credits include the weakly scripted Addams Family SEE REVIEW HERE) and director (Andy Fickman who directed a very similar plotted B movie The Game Plan in 2007) told them: “We have a threadbare script and don’t feel like putting in the effort to write a better one so – ADLIB!”
It’s a shame too as there were a few moments which show what could have been done. In one, for example, Key tones it down to a human level and explains to Brynn why he became a smoke jumper – that he had been an accountant, saved from certain death by Jake and decided to join. There’s some good lines in there too, such as when he mentions that his family is full of accountants who are heroes to him. It was Key’s best moment in the movie. In another notable spot Cena tells the kids a biography-revealing bed time story, which was nice, but would have been more effective had they not done the big reveal on his father’s death earlier.
There are also some REALLY poorly thought out and more than questionable events such as deciding two adult men are appropriate to change a girl toddler’s diaper when her teenaged sister is available. Also, how is it OK to leave a little girl alone with a full grown male stranger, even if he is a smoke jumper, to play tea party? To say the scenes were awkward would be an understatement. (And WHERE, in the middle of the night when trapped by a storm at a fire station did they get baby wipes much less replacement diapers??!!)
For all its flaws I will give it this: There was no sex or bad language and the movie does a good job of emphasizing the importance of a Dad in a child’s life whether the child is a boy, girl, teen or toddler. The little girl missed her Dad and glommed onto the first male role model available. The kids all mentioned how their Dad used to tell them bed time stories. Brynn, the teenager, puts herself and siblings into life threatening situations because she won’t listen to Jake, who in turn risks his life to save them more than once. The best moments in the movie are when Jake tones it down and acts like a person instead of a cliche joke magnet.
So – Playing with Fire is harmless, brainless fun but, honestly, if you are in the mood for this kind of movie, The Pacifier with Vin Diesel does it SO much better.