In the new comedy Playing With Fire, a youngster challenges the authority of Jake Carson (John Cena), a disciplined and severe firefighter, by correcting Carson’s wildly off-base guess about the kid’s age. Carson’s right-hand man Mark (Keegan-Michael Key) steps in to assert that this insubordination will not stand: “If he says you’re 8, you’re 8.” It’s a funny line, especially with Key’s fuming delivery. But it would be funnier if it didn’t also speak to the movie’s own carelessness. Playing With Fire is about a quartet of badass smoke-jumpers who rescue a trio of siblings from a forest fire, and must spend a weekend babysitting them at a remote, storm-marooned fire station until their parents arrive. Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand, the sarcastic young X-Men trainee from the Deadpool movies) is a teenage caregiving figure, Will (Christian Convery) is the tween-age middle kid, and Zoey (Finley Rose Slater), well, she’s harder to pinpoint. She looks like a 3-year-old, speaks and acts like a 2-year-old, and the movie repeatedly refers to her as “the baby”—that is, until the filmmakers backtrack and make her third birthday party a major plot point. In other words: If they say her age changes from scene to scene, then her age changes from scene to scene.
Obviously Playing With Fire does not hinge on whether Zoey should be potty-trained or speaking in complete sentences, and it’s far from the first movie to fudge a child’s developmental stages for comic effect. But there’s something particularly enervating about a cuddly parenting comedy that maintains a convenient ignorance about what children are actually like, even as the grown-ups supposedly learn their lessons about that very subject.
To be fair, the adult characters are subject to a similar capriciousness, disguised as comic elasticity. Rodrigo (John Leguizamo), another member of the elite smoke-jumping squad, steadily accrues quirks and tics: He’s a backup pilot who’s afraid of flying! He cooks gross food with Spam! If he sees someone cry, he’ll start to cry! It’s supposed to be kid-pleasing nonsense—comic relief from all the other comic relief—but comes across more like a context-free knockoff of Winston from New Girl, flailing through non sequitur-level shtick without generating any ensemble friction.
The immovable object of the cast is supposed to be Cena, playing a shenanigans-averse superintendent. Jake is chasing his father’s legacy, hoping for a high-profile new job, and doesn’t want these kids mucking up his military-grade tidiness and efficiency. (Will he eventually warm to the babysitting task at hand?!) Cena is well-built for pratfalls; his wrestler’s physique makes the live-action cartooniness look less grotesque (and for that matter, less computerized than it is in most family comedies). He can be charming, too, as when Jake takes to the piano but can only play fire-themed songs of a certain vintage. But no matter who the movie throws at him—Key, Leguizamo, mouthy kids, Judy Greer in an ill-considered love-interest role—he always seems to be performing in a vacuum.
Director Andy Fickman seems aware that there are potential laughs in how his performers are positioned on screen; Key’s Mark, for example, pops in and out of sight, often accompanied by animation-ready whooshing sound effects. But he doesn’t choreograph these moments into funny set pieces, using his camera mainly just to accent moments of dopey, sometimes scatological slapstick. Another one of the movie’s go-to running gags involves the firefighters’ swift acquiescence to the lore of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, the cartoon that something-year-old Zoey loves. Yet the group’s interest in the show is introduced suddenly, paid off only minimally (sadly, no reference to bronies), and eventually leads into an impromptu toy-buying montage. It’s as if the movie learned comedy from watching product placement.
Playing With Fire does have an appealing modesty. Most of it takes place over the course of a single weekend; the actors keep the energy levels high without going full-on manic; and the movie tries, however clumsily, to sidestep the latent (or not-so-latent) sexism of its manly-men-be-parenting subgenre. It’s more tedious than unwatchable, and pint-size Cena fans may be curious to see him in a movie more compatible with his Kids’ Choice Awards hosting gigs than the likes of Blockers or Trainwreck. Sadly, the movie never shows similar curiosity about what its young audience, and subjects, might be thinking or feeling.