The rich comedic tradition of beefcakes taking care of kids
The new movie Playing with Fire may not seem like a particularly distinguished comedy, but in its way, it's part of a rich, albeit very specific, tradition. Just as bodybuilder-turned-movie-star Arnold Schwarzenegger unofficially passed his tough-guy torch to wrestler-turned-movie-star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, John Cena has lined up behind The Rock to make the wrestling-to-film transition. Part of that process, it seems, is doing some funny babysitting.
Arnold did it in Kindergarten Cop, wringing comedy from posing as a teacher for a bunch of unruly five-year-olds. Following in his footsteps, Johnson did it in The Game Plan (in which a tough football player discovers he has a daughter), and Johnson's estranged Fast & Furious costar Vin Diesel did it in The Pacifier (in which a tough soldier must protect and care for a group of siblings). Now Cena's star status is conferred by doing the same in Playing with Fire, where he plays a smoke-jumping firefighter who must spend a weekend in charge of three children he rescued from a forest blaze. The movie is even directed by Andy Fickman, who made The Game Plan.
In some ways, the tough-guy-as-babysitter comedy is an even purer vehicle than a custom-designed action movie, especially in 2019. To generate the expected automatic laugh from a particular star faced with a bunch of screaming kids, the star in question must be a known quantity in his own right, and a very specific type at that. (It's never her own right, because even today, female stars are expected to have a more natural nurturing side.) Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth may be widely seen as Captain America and Thor, for instance, but their adventures are special-effects-driven fantasies, not pure action movies in the Arnold mode. Matt Damon's best-known character may be an action hero of sorts, but a scene with him and a kid doesn't automatically register as Jason Bourne looking unexpectedly sensitive.
On that level, there's something strange about Cena performing this shtick: He's not really an action star, unless you count his ongoing wrestling gigs. Cena did attempt to make the jump into rugged, unstoppable '80s-style action heroics with a pair of low-rent vehicles over a decade ago. The Marine and 12 Rounds, both little-seen and little-loved, failed to launch Cena into Dwayne Johnson's orbit (though to be fair, Johnson had plenty of failed vehicles before he became one of the biggest movie stars in the world). Cena kept wrestling, and has re-emerged in movies in recent years — but mostly comedies, and usually as a comically oversized presence in stories centered on women. He had bit parts in Trainwreck and Sisters, and a leading role in last year's Blockers. In Playing With Fire, his flip from glowering disciplinarian to sensitive caregiver essentially spoofs the persona he's spent most of his movie career spoofing already.
This shortcut is really just a progression from The Pacifier and The Game Plan, both of which jumped the gun on spoofing their stars' images. Schwarzenegger starred in about 10 movies before Kindergarten Cop; Diesel and Johnson did five or six apiece before playing the kid card, without anything nearly as iconic as Predator or The Terminator. Now Cena has bypassed action stardom entirely; Blockers, not even a huge hit, was seen by more people than his first two action movies put together.
Technically, Playing with Fire doesn't depend on Cena having a storied action-movie past. He looks the part (as his character says in Trainwreck, "like Mark Wahlberg ate Mark Wahlberg"), and his physicality does more work than almost anything else in the movie save perhaps his costar Keegan-Michael Key (it's a lazy, if harmless, bit of kiddie slapstick). Cena skipping straight to the image-subverting family-film phase of his career could even be read as a positive sign, that studios no longer require the bona fides of an on-screen body count for movie-star credibility.
Then again, maybe it's just that movies still consider masculine caregivers to be automatically hilarious. Playing with Fire tries to sidestep notions of outdated gender roles with Judy Greer's character, a neighboring biologist who is supposed to call out Cena's character when he asks her for help. He insists he merely requires her expertise as a biologist, not as a more nurturing woman, somewhat unconvincingly. (Also, they fall in love, very unconvincingly.) Still, the movie is mostly good-natured, and presents Cena's character as too laser-focused on his own goals to make himself or others happy, rather than too manly to parent. These movies always, after all, wind up with the tough guy and the kids forming a deep, affectionate bond.
There's nothing wrong with this formula, necessarily, but it's also not especially interesting to watch Cena debate the merits of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic after he played a more genuinely conflicted and dimensional father of a daughter in Blockers. Of course, the younger-kid fanbase he's gained from wrestling and hosting the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards can't watch the R-rated Blockers (Nickelodeon produced Playing with Fire, making it feel very much like a Kids Choice Production). But if Cena isn't goofing around with an established action-movie persona, why do his kid-targeted movies still need to follow a tangentially related formula? Playing with Fire plugs a talented, game performer into a routine without much context, making Cena — who has a funny, genuine vulnerability — seem more calculating by extension. If musclebound stars no longer need to automatically run the action-movie gauntlet to prove their worth, maybe they can figure out something funnier to do than become a good dad after all.
Or maybe not: My Spy, starring Dave Bautista and a feisty little girl, is out in January.
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