Playing With Fire (PG)
I'm always slightly suspicious when filmmakers include outtakes at the end of the movie as the credits roll. The film wasn't funny enough? Here, laugh at some shots of actors making mistakes! But actually yes, they are the funniest part of this movie, a family comedy starring former wrestler John Cena. As for the first 96 minutes, there was the odd slapstick gag that landed and some strong comedic work from the versatile John Leguizamo, but otherwise it's harmless, charmless, tween schlock - with a curiously large number of My Little Pony references. Must be a hefty product placement cheque in the mail.
Cena plays Jake Carson, an earnest fire superintendent who rescues three problem children after their remote cabin burns to the ground in a wildfire. Hoping to have a quiet weekend with time to complete his promotion application, Jake is forced to look after the kids: three-year old Zoey (Finlay Rose Slater), eight-year old Will (Christian Convery) and teenager Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand). To help Jake with the temporary parenting task is his trusty but decidedly motley crew: oyal deputy Mark (comedian Keegan-Michael Kay), helicopter pilot but wannabe chef Rodrigo (Leguizamo), and huge but silent axeman Axe (Tyler Mane, another ex-wrester). While Will finds buttons to push, taps to turn and firefighting equipment to break, cute little Zoey works on the hearts of the three tough men. Brynn is more mysterious, the classic cynical teenager, who watches the antics of both siblings and firemen, chipping in with the occasional withering bout of sarcasm. To fill out the cast, and make sure there's a romantic subplot, it's revealed that Jake has a crush on nearby wildlife scientist Dr Amy Hicks (Judy Greer) who shares her innermost thoughts about Jake with her pet toads.
Written like a second-class sitcom, the action plays out mostly on one set, the jokes mostly fall flat, and director Andy Fickman (Paul Mart: Mall Cop 2) is unable to squeeze much energy out of the tedious screenplay (from Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman). Cena is the straight man here, with Jake the son of a fireman who died on the job, and a man who's not so much fighting fires as the distractions that must surely come with family life.
This is a wholesome Nickelodeon project and we know where the story is heading: all work and no play makes Jake a dull boy. With old-school chauvinism embedded throughout the narrative, it becomes the collective job of the three female characters - Zoey, Brynn and Amy - to show Jake an alternative.
This is a wholesome Nickelodeon project and we know where the story is heading: all work and no play makes Jake a dull boy.
Hildebrand, who's appeared with plenty of energy in the Deadpool movies, seems mostly bored.
Greer, a talented actress known best for her work on Arrested Development, is severely short-changed as the love interest, her character dropping in and out of the action to deliver a dreadful line or stimulate some jokes about Jake's poor dating skills.
Cena is a world class wrestler, but you can't say the same about his acting: he looks uncomfortably out of place in this story - especially when trying to dance (why?) or when wearing a teeny My Little Pony T-shirt over his veiny chest muscles.
He is certainly no Dwayne Johnson.
What confused me most about the film is its intended audience.
I know making films for the family has never been tougher, but I'm not convinced that small children will be interested in Jake's situation, and there's not much sophistication for parents.
The poop jokes got the best laughs in my screening. Until we got to the bloopers. Then the audience came to life, mainly because for the first time there was something authentic on screen.