In 2017, Joseph Kosinski directed “Only the Brave,” a studious and searing depiction of wildland firefighting. It’s an honest and unflinching account of the training, tactics, bravery and sheer sacrifice required to do such a job, one that has only become more crucial as climate change-enhanced wildfires ravage California every fall. It was a criminally underseen film that more people should seek out this weekend, rather than subject themselves and their loved ones to the surreal, fecal-flecked nonsense that is “Playing with Fire.” It’s a family comedy about wildland firefighters, or “smokejumpers,” who gain a little levity in their lives thanks to a trio of mischievous kids.
The Los Angeles air was redolent with the smell of smoke the morning “Playing with Fire” screened, creating a full-on sensory experience. When the film opens on a group of motorists trapped on a mountain road, surrounded by fire, it’s almost horrific. But then, Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” kicks in. “It’s too hot, hot damn,” Mars croons as star John Cena, playing Supervisor Jake Carson, calls in a drop of fire retardant, grabs a flaming branch, fends off a lusty wife and steps aside to let a small child run face-first into the side of a minivan. It’s so strange it’s positively Lynchian.
Directed by Andy Fickman and written by Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman, “Playing with Fire” shoots for slapstick but lands squarely in the surreal. Supervisor Jake, known as Supe, is a highly controlled man in charge of a motley crew of smokejumpers who have their world turned upside down by the young siblings they rescue .
Or at least that’s the vaguely sketched idea one gleans from among all the physics-defying bathroom jokes and “My Little Pony” references.
“Playing with Fire” is harmless enough. But it relies on tired, low-brow comedy tropes and is executed so poorly that it’s not worth the effort. Haven’t firefighters had it hard enough this fall?