The plot of every sitcom is the same. There’s an inciting incident and a weekly story arc, but the real plot is this: A collection of characters, whether they’re related or not, act out the notion that they’re a “family” (they snipe at each other because they love each other), and by tuning in we become part of that family; that’s why even the most acerbic sitcom makes us feel good. The sitcom started off as a form for adults, but like rock ‘n’ roll and designer fashion-plate coolness it’s now regularly targeted to 8-year-olds. Kiddie sitcoms are ubiquitous on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, and “Playing with Fire,” the new family comedy starring John Cena as a fearless but emotionally tight-ass smokejumper, is a barely glorified sitcom made in the overlit and benignly smart-mouth Nickelodeon house style.
The film opens with Cena, as Jake Carson, leading the battle against a wildfire blaze in a California forest. The fire sure looks real (it’s an impressive sequence), so you may figure you’re in for a wholesomely heroic action comedy. But then Jake, known as “Supe” (short for superintendent), and his right-hand men, the deeply loyal chatterbox Rodrigo (John Leguizamo) and the sarcastic wiseacre Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), head back to the firehouse, which is basically the film’s elaborate version of a three-camera sitcom set.
There’s another brief action sequence (they rush to extinguish a burning cabin), but that’s only there to set up the sitcom premise: In the cabin they rescue three children — the sassy teenage Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand) and her sibling tots, Will (Christian Convery) and Zoey (Finley Rose Slater) — who now need a place to go. (They’re pretending their parents were away; in fact, they are orphans.) Do you think there’s a chance they could stay at the firehouse and cause a lot of precocious trouble and, through all the slapstick disaster, form a sitcom family with the smokejumpers?
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In describing the kids’ antics, I almost used the term “high jinks,” but I avoided it because Brynn, in her more-plugged-in-than-thou Gen-Z hauteur, would sneer at a phrase like “high jinks.” It’s so old. That generational friction, between her and Jake, is the source of the film’s comedy — or, at least, it is in the first “episode,” which is basically “If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get The Kids Out of the Kitchen.” There’s a bit of head-bonking, as well as an incident where Jake and Mark have to clean up a bathroom accident by little Zoey, and the actors’ largely improvised gross-out panic (we see more of it in the outtakes) is pretty damn funny. Keegan-Michael Key does something sharp in this movie: He takes a nothing role and plays each riff with a concentration so wide-eyed and manic it becomes surreal. (Leguizamo is less funny as a goofball man-child who reflexively misquotes the famous.)
But it’s John Cena’s movie. Playing this paramilitary firefighter jock, a character built directly around his bodybuilder physique, Cena is certainly convincing. He’s so pumped up his palms have muscles; the veins in his chest look like implanted electric wires. But Cena may be the first bodybuilder-turned-actor who has what Arnold Schwarzenegger had: the ability to project a mocking light soul trapped in a musclehead’s body. And Cena’s antic volubility is very 21st century. In “Playing with Fire,” he’s like Jon Hamm’s lunk brother — you want to see him wind down and unclench. And gradually he does.
The process starts in earnest with the movie’s middle episode, which could be called “Jake’s Heart Is On Fire,” in which he woos Dr. Amy Hicks (Judy Greer), the research scientist who’s working to preserve the habitat of a local species of toad. She and Jake had a date once, but he couldn’t get past his 24/7 smokejumper compulsiveness. (That’s because he was raised in a firehouse by his heroic firefighter daddy, who died in action.) There’s more slapstick, notably a scene of our boys trying to walk through spilled motor oil in a parking lot that’s shot with a lot of whirling POV camera. We then arrive at the last episode, which could be called “Who’s the Boss?,” in which Jake makes his big play to take over for Commander Richards (Dennis Haysbert), the gruff retiring chief officer of the California smokejumpers brigade.
That Jake winds up auditioning for the position while wearing a little girl’s stretched-too-tight fairy-tale unicorn T-shirt shows you just how much he has “grown.” If “Playing with Fire” were on Nickeloden, where Cena is a mainstay, it would have a laugh track and fewer outdoor scenes. It wouldn’t have to pretend that it’s a movie. But the audience for “Playing with Fire” may be content to think: What’s the difference, anyway?