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“Playing” never catches fire

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
1.5 stars
Cast: John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, Judy Greer, Dennis Haysbert, Judy Greer
Director: Andy Fickman
Release Date: Nov. 8, 2019

In movies, as in life, commitment counts.

Every awards season, critics celebrate actors who are fiercely committed to their craft. We swoon over how Daniel Day-Lewis stays in character off-camera and how Joaquin Phoenix loses 52 pounds to play the Joker.

But where is the love, I wonder, for actors fiercely committed to a really bad movie? The ones who give 110% to a movie that is clearly just a paycheck for them?

That is, in many ways, just as impressive as the sort of dedication that wins Oscars for Day-Lewis and Phoenix. So let us give a little round of applause to Keegan-Michael Key and John Leguizamo, the undisputed stars of the new kid comedy “Playing with Fire.”

Both Key and Leguizamo are operating on another level of manic -twitchy, jumpy, over-the-top and working way too hard to sell jokes that just aren’t that funny. But their live-wire energy and dedication to the material keeps “Playing with Fire” moving rather briskly through its 90 minutes.

It’s just a shame that everybody else is operating at 20% or best. The script, by Matt Lieberman and Dan Ewen seems to mistake projectile poop jokes and slapstick humor for actual jokes. John Cena, the ostensible star, seems as bored as he has ever been on the big screen. The less said about the blandly inoffensive child actors the better.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

I suppose we have to discuss the plot although Lieberman and Ewen didn’t give me a whole lot to work with. Basically, Cena, Key, Leguizamo and Tyler Mane are a crew of firefighters who rescue three children from a cabin fire somewhere in California.

The children, as you may expect, are orphans. The macho men, as you may expect, don’t want to waste their time with the kiddies.

Since you are smart, sophisticated readers, I’m pretty sure you know where this story is going. A monkey could write this script. I’m not entirely convinced that one didn’t.

Of course, there have been many great comedies made out of much less and much worse material. In fact, “Playing with Fire” director Andy Fickman directed two dumb family comedies I rather liked – the Kristen Bell vehicle “You Again” and the Billy Crystal film “Parental Guidance”. Neither were great art, but the jokes were there and so were some fiercely committed performances.

“Playing with Fire” only gets halfway there. At least, Key and Leguizamo seem to be having a ball and make even the smallest scenes- Key lecturing a backtalking teenager, Leguizamo piloting a helicopter-  sparkle with their excellent comic timing.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The few jokes that land are courtesy of Key and Leguizamo. Consider, for example, when Key explains that San Quentin is “a liberal arts college in Vermont”.

Leguizamo has the best running gag where he badly misquotes historical figures.

“Teach a man to light a fire, and he’s warm for a day. Light a man on fire, he’s warm for life. Ben Franklin.”

Lieberman and Ewen spend way too much of the film’s runtime on toilet humor – this is a Nickelodeon production after all- and on finding creative ways to knock Cena around a bit. They seem to think there is nothing funnier than watching a muscular man fall on his butt. They are wrong.

Cena is clearly aiming for a Dwayne Johnson-style family movie career with this one, but, if this is the level of commitment he’s going to display, it’s probably best that the career ends before it begins. Talented folks like Judy Greer and Dennis “Allstate Insurance” Haysbert also seem to be at a loss. The kids never really make you care – or even like them all that much.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

It’s inoffensive enough as kid movies go, but parents will be bored and probably a little offended by how little effort everybody involved- minus Key and Leguizamo- seemed to expend while telling this story.

As most middling comedies do, “Playing with Fire” (rated PG for rude humor, some suggestive material, and mild peril) ends with a gag reel- an acknowledgement that everybody involved with this production had a good time making it. If only the audience could say the same thing about watching it.

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at




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