The worst movies for kids are screamed, not written. The idea seems to be that seeing insane things on screen and adults acting wacky constitutes a film. A perfect example of this is Playing with Fire, a movie that plays more like a series of loony ideas than an actual story.
Playing with Fire centers around a group of smokejumpers, essentially firefighters who jump directly into the fire. When a local cabin catches on fire, Fire Station Superintendent Jake Carson (John Cena) rappels in and finds three kids that he brings back to the station until their parents can pick them up. Since Carson can’t get a hold of the parents, Carson’s group of smokejumpers and the three kids will have to cohabitate for the weekend. Havoc ensues!
The fire station is little more than an excuse for various accidents to occur. The youngest kid, Zoey (Finley Rose Slater) plays tea time with lighter fluid, the middle child, Will (Christian Convery) fills the garage with soapsuds and the chaperone of the family, Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand) is just sarcastic and makes fun of the group who saved their lives.
The smokejumper crew fares slightly more entertaining, due to the cast who can only do so much to help this story. John Leguizamo plays a combination of contradictions. He’s a pilo who’s afraid to fly and a cook who almost exclusively uses SPAM. Tyler Mane is known as Axe, a silent who – you guessed it – carried a massive ax everywhere he goes. Keegan-Michael Key is the primary highlight of this group, simply because his character is a toned-town version of Luther, Obama’s Anger Translator from Key & Peele, except he tries to boost up his hero, Cena’s Carson. Most disappointing is Cena, who has proven in films like Trainwreck and Blockers that he can do comedy well. But here, he’s the worst offender of going big instead of actually being funny.
But it’s admittedly hard to be funny with the trials that writers Matt Lieberman and Dan Ewen throw into this script. For example, one of Zoey’s main character traits is farting or “boom boom”-ing her pants. At one point, Carson – in full firefighter garb – attempts to change Zoey, which results in Zoey projectile shitting up Carson’s sleeve, drenching Carson’s mask in “boom boom.” It’s the most egregious case of Playing with Fire’s comedic sense, which is essentially to make big messes, with the hope that the scenario alone will be funny. This is also the M.O. of director Andy Fickman, whose films like The Game Plan and Parental Guidance revolve around how assumedly wild the dynamic between kids and adults are.
Admittedly, Playing with Fire does find some redeeming qualities when the film calms down a bit. When the smokejumpers and the kids bond over Carson’s love interest, Dr. Amy Hicks (played by Judy Greer in yet another thankless role), the result is actually sweet. Even better is the smokejumpers’ attempt to throw a My Little Pony parts for Zoey, a charming segment that shows that Playing with Fire could’ve been it the eccentricity hadn’t been cranked up to 11. Also great in a small role is Dennis Haysbert as Commander Richards, who thinks himself immortal and whose deadpan delivery works well amongst the zaniness.
“Kids are like fires: you can’t control them. You just have to contain them until they burn themselves out,” Greer’s character says at one point. But Playing with Fire is also uncontrollable, an unrestrained string of mayhem, without much purpose other than to make loud noises and kooky movements that only the youngest of kids could enjoy.