Playing with Fire

I don’t think I’ll be breaking any hearts by saying that Playing with Fire, also known as “Keegan-Michael Key Really Wants a Summer House: the Movie”, isn’t very good. In fact, it’s downright awful, and exactly the sort of movie you’d expect from the director of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. Billing itself as the newest addition in the long-thought to be forgotten genre of “big muscular man has to suddenly watch over a child/multiple children and hijinks ensue” along with next year’s My Spy, Playing with Fire starts out as a photocopied version of something like The Pacifier, before slowly and begrudgingly morphing itself into something that wants to be slightly more. Yes, the big twist of this review is not that Playing with Fire is a bad movie, because it is, but that it might just be less bad than you’d expect…or than it should be.

John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, and Tyler Mane star as a group of smoke jumpers who are forced to take care of three precocious children when they save them from a cabin fire, as their parents can’t arrive to take them due to a storm. Add some drama in John Cena’s professional life, some latent trauma in the kids’ lives, and Judy Greer because God forbid that woman ever take a role befitting of her talent, put it in the oven, and nuke it for five minutes and you’ve got the script for Playing with Fire.

For the first 30 minutes of the movie, it’s nigh unwatchable. The movie gets its single good joke out of the way (movies like this always have one good joke that, either due to a sudden lapse in talentlessness or just the lowered bar of the rest of the film, always gets a laugh out of me) early on, and then just sits in the bowels of predictable, lazy slapstick humor to put on in the background so your kid will shut up for an hour and a half. And for as bad as the writing, directing, and general technical aspects of the film are, the biggest downside in this early section is the acting, usually the one saving grace in these sorts of films. The Pacifier is a silly movie, but it worked for me and many other kids in 2005 because Vin Diesel was having fun with it. Me and my friends still reference Dwayne Johnson’s “I’m allergic to cinnamon” from The Game Plan because…well because we’re weird, broken people, but also because the line delivery is good, no matter how bad the lines themselves are. Here, aside from Tyler Mane who seems to be having a little fun, the performances from the leads are so forced, stilted, and overplayed. Key is painful to watch in particular, with every little mannerism turned up to eleven but with none of the passion required by such a cartoony performance.

However, as with all of these movies, the first act ends, and there’s the emotional scene, and then the second half begins. But what makes Playing with Fire hover like Tom Cruise with a rope around his waist above an F rating is this second half, where the emotional scene shifts the movie into something equally stupid, but trying a little bit harder. It focuses more on the children, led by Brianna Hildebrand, who is trying her hardest to hold this movie together through sheer willpower, and less on the bumbling adults making fools of themselves.

Nothing Playing with Fire has to offer in its second half is notable in any way other than comparing it to what came before. Watching John Cena bond with these kids is passably sweet, in a way where parents walking out of the theater can in good conscience call the movie “cute” upon exiting the theater.

That’s about the highest that this movie can reach: being called “cute” by parents. It’s a harmless, cheap, and boring film that  passable in comparison to the miserably low bar it sets for itself. There’s nothing to recommend here, in truth, but I would be lying if this was the vat of toxic waste I expected from the trailers. Maybe that’s why I’m being far too kind, I was expecting (or hoping) for an unmitigated disaster, and only got a two-car pile-up. In that pile-up, there are some attempts at emotions or a coherent narrative, and even though the film doesn’t land them, trying is more than I can say for some of 2019’s family fare. And the movie even finds a second joke somewhere in there so that’s…that’s something, right?


D Review

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