Has it really been six Christmases since Andy Fickman and Walden Media gifted audiences with the historically and hysterically misguided family frolic Parental Guidance? Last weekend, Fickman and Walden rattled the cage and East County heeded their call. The Saturday matinee performance of Playing With Fire was a sellout, in more ways than one, with audience members laughing as if their lives depended on it. Seated in the second row, this critic contributed more than his fair share of participative guffaws, though for different reasons.
Instead of getting his chance to clear the bar set by a smokejumper father seasoned in the art of smothering, Superintendent Jake “Supe” Carson (John Cena) is stationed in Reading, CA, a minor hazard town, relatively speaking. He longs to be transferred to a more combustible part of the state; you might say he burns to be closer to the action, like a firehouse in Santa Barbara. Built like Popeye, the ablutophiliac Supe’s workday consists of tidying the firehouse and playing first fiddle to a band of stout, roughhewn, and wholly unifunctional stooges.
Kids will no doubt identify with Rodrigo (John Leguizamo), an ex-con with the innate ability to misassign quotations to the unlikeliest of sources. His performance makes Spawn’s Clown and The Pest look understated by comparison. Keegan-Michael Key worked so hard in Dolemite Is My Name that he can afford to coast playing Abbott opposite Leguizamo’s Costello. Axe (retired scrapper Tyler Mane), a soaring Paul Bunyan-esque mute, is nicknamed for the ever-present hatchet slung over his shoulder. They’re the gang that couldn’t squirt straight; when the chance to extinguish fire activity does arise, the water drop is so far off the mark that it irrigates the neighboring block.
Inside the smoldering house crouch a trio of unchaperoned minors. Quicker than one can say “self-immolating monk,” Supe swoops down to save the day. The kids swear that their parents are away for the weekend and that older sister Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand) was left in charge. But if that were the case, there would be no sad music cues at the mention of dead parents, no reconciliations to be made, and no kids to adopt before the obligatory blooper reel rings down the curtain. And do you think the kids’ll manage to grind a few words out of Axe?
Allstate superstar Dennis Haysbert leaves the relative comfort of his inter-sectional easy chair to bring his “class for sale” trustworthiness to Commander Richards, a specialized superhero revered by wildland firefighters both hither and yon. The Comm catches wind of Supe’s heroics, and as a reward for his actions, promises a surprise visit and maybe even a possible promotion. Alas, the love interest proves to be the film’s most saddening component. The grossly undervalued Judy Greer deserves better than playing Olive Oyl opposite Cena’s 251 pounds of cold Supe.
There are enough family-friendly pictures that feature former wrestlers in prominent roles to constitute a subgenre. (Hulk Hogan in No Holds Barred and Mr. Nanny, Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride, Triple H in The Chaperone, Tor Johnson in Plan 9 From Outer Space, etc.) But no wrestler has made a bigger crossover from R rated action to PG pablum than Dwayne Johnson. This is not Fickman’s first time casting from within the squared circle. Who could ever remember The Game Plan, the film that first exposed audiences to the family friendly side of “The Rock”? This time around, John Cena’s rubbery physiognomy and outlandish dimensions make his appeal ot the diaper set easy to understand.
The term “auteur” has been misapplied to the point where what was once a badge of excellence has now become a meaningless appellation for anyone who’s directed more than two features. But there’s a case to be made for Andy Fickman. Though not a writer-director on the order of Steven Brill or Tim Burton, his touch is present in every frame. How many scores can you name that result in unintentional howls? Fickman’s regular composer Nathan Wang strikes every wrong note. His search for emotion-manipulating pathos plays out like a Greek chorus of maudlin mellifluousness. There’s as much scatalogical humor on display as one would expect to find in a pre-MPAA John Waters comedy. As if donning full fireman gear to change a dirty diaper weren’t funny enough, somehow — I’m going to have to see it again to see precisely how he pulled it off — the contents work their way up Supe’s sleeve before exploding inside his integrated face-shielding helmet. Francis Coppola has committed to long-term memory “I Want to Be a Sailor,” the song Sabu sings in Michael Powell’s The Thief of Bagdad. The same holds true for Parental Guidance devotees who have nailed down every lyric to Billy Crystal’s “Come Out Mr. Doody,” a lustral ditty aimed at helping to evacuate his constipated grandson. Fickman’s “poop reversal” is as bold a directorial statement as Scorsese “borrowing” George Delerue’s “Theme de Camille” from Godard’s Contempt to underscore the opening credits of Casino. This time it’s youngest sibling Zoey (the ridiculously adorable Finley Rose Slater), afraid to be left alone in the woods, who won’t stop crying unless she accompanies shy Supe on his nightly drop.
How, you ask, does material like this make the final cut of a film geared for the entire family? It was Fickman’s duty! Schlock can at times be more of a delight that an occupational hazard. I don’t care what I’m laughing at, just so long as I’m laughing. Fans of bad cinema would be well advised to spend time Playing With Fire.