Even two years ago, could Vin Diesel have imagined starring in a movie that would require his macho self to dive head-first into a kiddy playpen filled with colored plastic balls and emerge triumphantly with a soiled diaper in hand? If auds swallow this odoriferous exercise in calculated career repositioning, they'll swallow anything.

Even two years ago, could Vin Diesel have imagined starring in a movie that would require his macho self to dive head-first into a kiddy playpen filled with colored plastic balls and emerge triumphantly with a soiled diaper in hand? Yet such is the tenor of the humor in “The Pacifier,” a truly gag-worthy comedy designed to open up new horizons for the flagging action hero by having him baby-sit a family of obnoxious brats. If auds swallow this odoriferous exercise in calculated career repositioning, they’ll swallow anything. But the “Daddy Day Care” crowd may well be lying in wait.

Best when he’s brooding and truculent, Diesel, who lacks the grace and timing of a natural comic actor, here attempts the sort of image shift that Arnold Schwarzenegger pulled off at a significantly more advanced stage of his screen career by self-consciously sending up his muscleman persona in mainstream comedy.

Three important differences: Diesel hasn’t remotely established the sort of public profile that Schwarzenegger had when he went comic; he hasn’t surrounded himself with such skilled talent; and his material is significantly more ridiculous.

It’s hard to imagine mature adults in the upper echelons of the motion picture business getting excited about a script whose biggest laugh line has a little girl looking at the shirtless Diesel character and asking, “Why are your boobs so big?” But similar juvenile humor graced screenwriters Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant’s “Starsky & Hutch” script last year, so everyone knew what they were getting into.

Suspicious cultural watchdogs may also detect a subliminal message about how American youth must now be militarily indoctrinated at a very early age.

Diesel plays Navy S.E.A.L. Shane Wolfe, a military lifer briefly assigned to protect the family of a scientist who Shane couldn’t prevent from being assassinated. While Mom (Faith Ford) is away trying to get her hands on the literal key to her late husband’s legacy, Shane confronts a five-kid household he finds woefully lacking in discipline, manners and obedience training. But even the by-the-books Shane can’t prevent the little ones from barfing, pooping and farting as they please, or the household duck from attacking him the way Mike Tyson did Evander Holyfield.

Loading his ammo belt with milk bottles for the tyke and imposing 6 a.m. reveille even on Sunday, Shane is disrespected by headstrong teen Zoe (Brittany Snow) and withdrawn Seth (Max Thieriot), as well as by Helga (Carol Kane), a nanny of Transylvanian whiteness who would have seemed more at home in “The Addams Family.”

As if on automatic scriptwriting pilot, however, the kids gradually come around to a grudging affection for the domineering soldier, who manages to turn Zoe from a hopeless drivers ed student into an ace getaway driver and, in the script’s most jaw-droppingly peculiar turn, saves the day for aspiring actor Seth by stepping in as director of a little theater production of “The Sound of Music,” a move that also positions Shane as a would-be Captain Von Trapp at home. Climactic action rates on the credibility scale with Macaulay Culkin taking on the baddies in “Home Alone.”

The one genuinely comic contribution is supplied by “Everybody Loves Raymond” big man Brad Garrett. He scores strongly as a blustery high school vice principal and wrestling coach who ill-advisedly challenges Shane to a match. Lauren Graham is thoroughly wasted as the school principal and a former Navy girl who takes an innocuous shine to the strapping babysitter.

John Debney’s score leans on mock military strains for most of its effect, while Bethesda looks a whole lot like Toronto here. Costco is plugged to an obnoxious degree.

The Pacifier

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation in association with Spyglass Entertainment of a Birnbaum/Barber production. Produced by Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Jonathan Glickman. Executive producers, Adam Shankman, Jennifer Gibgot, Derek Evans, Garrett Grant, George Zakk. Directed by Adam Shankman. Screenplay, Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Peter James; editor, Christopher Greenbury; music, John Debney; production designer, Linda DeScenna; art director, Arv Grewal; set designer, Rudy Braun; set decorators, Paul McElvin, Steve Shewchuk; costume designer, Kirston Mann; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS), Glen Gauthier; supervising sound editor, David A. Whittaker; special visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic; assistant director, Daniel Silverberg; second unit director-stunt coordinator, Robert Brown; casting, Vickie Thomas. Reviewed at El Capitan Theater, Los Angeles, March 1, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Shane Wolfe - Vin Diesel Principal Claire Fletcher - Lauren Graham Julie Plummer - Faith Ford Zoe - Brittany Snow Seth - Max Thieriot Capt. Bill Fawcett - Chris Potter Lulu - Morgan York Director - Scott Thompson Helga - Carol Kane Vice Principal Murney - Brad Garrett Mr. Chun - Denis Akiyama Mrs. Chun - Mung-Ling Tsui

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