I am getting old. Oh, sure, I may only be 25 years of age, but it’s the little things that give away one’s aged nature. Video games with campaigns longer than 15 or so hours intimidate me to such an extent that I’m likely to skip them altogether on account of my not having enough hours in the day to commit. I can’t stay out much later than 11pm when with friends because I just get tired, melancholy and cranky. I have absolutely no fucking idea what TikTok is and why a decade-old Kesha song is apparently now the hippest-hottest thing on the planet to such an extent that it’s all I get YouTube ads for. All tell-tale signs of being certifiably Old, I’m sure you’ll agree. But nothing else has made me feel quite so old as watching Playing with Fire. Not so much because of the movie itself, which is supposedly a 2019 production yet its reference and joke pools have its carbon dating as 2014 at the very latest, but rather because of the film’s fundamental premise.
Playing with Fire is supposed to be one of those heartwarming family comedies in which a collection of wide-eyed pure-of-heart children teach some jaded closed-off adults to relearn the joy of being a kid and playtime. The children here are eldest daughter Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), middle-child Will (Christian Convery), and youngest infant Zoey (Finley Rose Slater) whom everyone erroneously refers to as a baby despite the fact that she’s perfectly capable of speech and free movement; all of whom are of indeterminate age. The adults are a quartet of smoke-jumpers, specialist firefighters who jump into raging forest fires to contain the damage as best they can, consisting of stern no-nonsense Superintendent Jake Carson (John Cena), his stalkingly-loyal number two Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), reformed ex-con turned nervous backup pilot and terrible chef Rodrigo (John Leguizamo), and Axe (Tyler Mane) who is big and grunts instead of talking and carries an axe at all times. These two groups are thrown together when the smoke-jumpers rescue the children from a burning building and are forced to take care of them for a full weekend when an inbound storm cuts the station off from the outside world.
In theory, this is supposed to be a warm and wholesome family comedy about the importance of family, fun, and a positive message of how it’s ok for men to be vulnerable and effeminate rather than stoic muscle-slabs. In practice, the movie is about three complete sociopaths – one a compulsive liar who routinely abuses the trust and sympathy of adults around her, one an unrepentant vandal with the IQ of a tadpole who is clearly old enough to know better, and one… ok, I guess the infant has an excuse – who spend three in-universe days bullying and berating their legal guardians, cause thousands of dollars in state property damage and freely waste resources that because of their actions may have gotten innocent civilians killed were the smoke-jumpers forced to fight literally any fire at all past the 20 minute mark, and repeatedly commit attempted manslaughter of the adults tasked with keeping them safe. These three express no remorse for their actions, do not grow as people from one end of the film to the next, yet are rewarded for their efforts with a last-minute ditching of child services (here depicted as callous fun-averse ninnies) and getting everything they wanted.
That may sound like I am exaggerating a misreading of the plot for comedic effect, but I assure you that is not the case. In films such as these, like for example Mr. Banks in the original Mary Poppins, the adult getting hectored is usually presented as, whilst being well-intentioned, having some kind of genuine flaw which requires them to get back in touch with their inner child so’s to become better people by the end of it. But the adults of Playing with Fire don’t have any major flaws that require the brutal hectoring they constantly receive. Jake is too serious and committed to the job, so much so that he’s completely blind to the reciprocated affections of a nearby pond-life researcher (a truly thankless Judy Greer which is really saying something for the gifted actress almost always stuck in the most thankless of roles), but it’s not affecting his performance on the job any and his team remains hopelessly loyal to him regardless of how little affection he shows them. When a bunch of red shirts up and quit in the first five minutes, they even state how it has nothing to do with Jake.
Mark is hinted to have jealous urges whenever his superior, whom it is revealed saved his life years ago hence the homoerotic attachment, warms to anyone else, but the film doesn’t address this at all outside of a few throwaway gags. Rodrigo gets over his fear of flying when the children are first rescued, so he doesn’t have an arc. All three of the non-Jake adults are already plenty open about their feelings and feminine impulses – which the film simultaneously wants to take seriously as a valid expression of one’s self whilst also playing it for the hackiest and lamest of jokes – so they don’t need to grow, and Jake’s eventual arc doesn’t necessarily need the intervention of a trio of demonic tykes to get him to a better place. So, the adults are cartoonishly one-dimensional and largely in the right, whilst the kids are just extremely unlikeable shit-weasels. Playing with Fire has a character problem, to put it in the TL;DR form.
But I’m reading too much into a dumb family comedy, clearly. Who cares about any of that stuff so long as it’s funny? Well, if you somehow thought the director of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (Andy Fickman) and the writer of The Christmas Chronicles (Matt Lieberman, working with first-timer Dan Ewen) were going to be able to put together a rip-snorting yuck-fest, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. This is a movie which believes that a brick shithouse of a growling man operatically singing the theme song to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is the height of comedy. There are a lot of My Little Pony references in Playing with Fire, much of them revolving around the supposedly inherent hilarity of a grown man being able to rattle off Friendship is Magic trivia, and the finale ends up being such a merchandise commercial for that now-concluded show I found myself triple-checking the credits to make certain this was a Nickelodeon Movies production and not a trojan-ed Hasbro Studios venture. Like I said, no amount of cringe-inducing Alexa or BTS references (both of which have tangibly been penned by writers who don’t understand either thing or memes in general) can stave off the impression that this script has been stuck in a junk drawer for the past four years.
Similar sentiments can also be extended to Fickman’s direction which evidently has not improved one iota since Paul Blart 2. His staging of physical comedy is largely hideous, almost always cutting away or into at the worst possible times, badly hiding the transitions to stunt performers. One particular sequence involving a runaway firehose and a room full of bubbles utilises some of the worst CGI and compositing I have seen in a theatrically-released movie in a hot minute. There’s one gag involving a burst of poo managing to get into Jake’s mouth through his fireproof suit and at time of writing it has been three days since viewing yet I still do not understand the in-universe physics as to how the poo gag works, so inept and artless is the staging. Equally as befuddling is how, for much of the opening half hour, every single shot manages to make the entire cast look animatronic, with all of the people on screen (and especially the extras) clearly having just been told “action!” at the very second we cut in after an age stood rigid at their marks. The effect is uncanny, like partaking in a particularly wooden theme park ride.
There is precisely one kind of funny joke hidden within all 96 of Playing with Fire’s interminable minutes wherein Jake, who used to play piano as a kid, tries to play some songs for the crew and the children only for him to literally only know fire-based songs. Sure, it doesn’t sound particularly inspired, but trust me when I tell you that even the most basic display of wit in this screenplay is equivalent to “Who’s On First?” when stuck watching this thing. Key and Cena are visibly bursting blood vessels in an effort to make this shit even slightly work, the former dialling his worst schtick up to 14 and the latter gamely trying to subvert his chiselled all-American masculine image despite the fact that his film choices this decade have alled upon him non-subversively using that image just once so there’s nothing to subvert, but all their flop-sweat desperation merely comes off as just that. Desperation. It’s gonna take at least 12 rewatches of Blockers and Key & Peele for the stink of this one to come off both actors’ resumes.
So, that’s Playing with Fire. A sociopathic, catastrophically inept and unfunny endurance test throwback to the worst of mid-00s family filmmaking. Or, y’know, maybe I’m just getting old. I felt the same way at the premise of that Playmobil movie from four months back that you’ve rightly already forgotten was a thing, and that only involved a child ordering his older sister to just get over the fact that their parents died and she now has to singlehandedly financially support them in upstate New York. Maybe I’m the negative one.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fd5GlZUpfaM]
Playing with Fire will be released in cinemas nationwide from Boxing Day.