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Friday, November 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Review: Smokejumper farce ‘Playing With Fire’ is only half-baked – and wholly unfunny

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 7, 2019

Firefighters John Leguizamo, John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key and Tyler Mane must look after a toddler (Finley Rose Slater) in “Playing With Fire.” (Doane Gregory / Paramount Pictures)
Firefighters John Leguizamo, John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key and Tyler Mane must look after a toddler (Finley Rose Slater) in “Playing With Fire.” (Doane Gregory / Paramount Pictures)
By Jane Horwitz Special to the Washington Post

The creators of “Playing With Fire,” a clodhopping comedy about California smokejumpers, built in little pauses after many of the film’s sight gags and verbal jokes, presumably to accommodate audience laughter. Bad idea.

If the movie were showing at a drive-in, the only sound during those pauses would be crickets chirping. Inside a theater, only a few kids’ fleeting giggles – and the crunching of popcorn – fill the void.

With horrific wildfires scorching California, the timing of this firefighter comedy also seems off. It might inspire empathy, if only it were actually funny.

Director Andy Fickman has multiple TV credits as a producer and director, including the series “Kevin Can Wait.” But if you want an indication of his talents on the big screen, look no further than “Parental Guidance” and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.” In those ill-conceived farces, Fickman demonstrated a blunderbuss approach to comedy that lingers here like a dull ache. Nor is he helped by screenwriters Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman, whose cut-and-paste-style of screenwriting bristles with narrative hiccups and continuity errors.

WWE star-turned actor John Cena, bringing his likable lug-with-a-heart-of-gold persona, plays Jake Carson, the stoic, romantically challenged leader of a smokejumper station. Several of his men – they’re all men – decamp to work for a more famous commander (Dennis Haysbert) at another depot. Jake, who’s in line for a big promotion, must make do with a skeleton crew, whose ability to handle firefighting equipment, let alone actual fires, seems haphazard at best.

Keegan-Michael Key plays Jake’s obsequious yes-man; John Leguizamo his nervous chopper pilot; and Tyler Mane is an ax-wielding, nonverbal giant. This would be a solid comic team under better circumstances, but even the best performers cannot keep this “Fire” alight.

The plot kicks in as Jake rescues three children from a burning cabin: a sarcastic teen, her mischievous little brother and their toddler sister (Brianna Hildebrand, Christian Convery and Finley Rose Slater, a particularly charmless trio as directed here). Baby sister has yet to be potty trained, which leads to a protracted bit of toilet humor that looks like desperation – and, metaphorically, stinks to high heaven.

Jake must contact the kids’ absent parents, try to rekindle his fizzled romance with a scientist who studies endangered frogs (Judy Greer) and stop the kids from messing with the firefighting equipment.

Needless to say, all the aforementioned contrivances of plot end happily. Even if the fine arts of cinema and comedy are abused in “Playing With Fire,” the pain is brief, and – with the closing credits – disappears like a puff of smoke.

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