Monday, March 07, 2005

REVIEW: The Pacifier

Contains spoilers, read at you're own risk.

Okay, show of hands: How many of you think that making a "wouldn't be funny if ______ had to babysit some rambunctious youngins??" movie is just what Vin Diesel really wanted to be doing at this phase of his career?

Uh... huh. Didn't think so. Well, too bad; because for better or for worse he's there.

Following a mainstream debut in "Saving Private Ryan," and a "who's THAT!!??" supporting role in "Pitch Black," Diesel skyrocketed to instant fame as Dominic Toretto in the car-porn landmark "The Fast & The Furious." Critics had been praising Diesel as a talent-to-watch for awhile, and while "Fast" made him an overnight megastar the type of fans it gained him has been a double-edged sword ever since: "Fast's" fans were, overwhelmingly, 12-20 year old male car-culture afficionados, and Dominic Toretto was a fully-formed creature of their own imagine fantasy-selves: A racially-ambiguous god-of-gearheads, born with street cred and who looked like they wanted to look, talked like they wanted to talk and drove like they wanted to drive. And while this audience will happily line their walls with your posters and purchase any product you lend your face to, they're also not exactly friendly to anything that could be considered a good movie, and they'll punish you severely if you dare try and make one. The "brand new coolest guy on Earth" persona that made Diesel a star has since been closing in on him like iron bars.

The first sign of trouble was "XXX," a would-be franchise with Diesel as an extreme-sports athlete recruited to use his skateboarding, snowboarding and bungee-jumping skills to fight terrorists. Yeah, I can't imagine why that didn't work either. Touted as the vehicle to turn Diesel into the second-coming of Schwarzenegger, it opened meek and finished weak. In what seemed like a smart move at the time to everyone, including me, Diesel skipped the "Fast" sequel in order to make a "Pitch Black" sequel, "The Chronicles of Riddick." Unfortunately, while lightyears better than "Fast" and "XXX," "Riddick" just wasn't good enough to change the growing perception that the coming of Vin Diesel: Superstar was mostly hype. Smaller entries like "Knockaround Guys" and "A Man Apart" vanished from the boxoffice without a trace, and while he's said to be prepped to prove all his critics wrong with a role in Sidney Lumet's next drama, Diesel will first try to re-conquer the boxoffice with THIS entry, his first family film (unless you count his role as the voice of "The Iron Giant.")

Let's be reasonable: You've seen this movie a hundred times. I've seen this movie three hundred times. This is a movie that every major actor known for a "distinct" persona makes sooner or later, the "Movie Star Babysitter Flick." The premise is always the same: Take someone famous, put them in a role reflecting their "stock" public perception and concoct some reason for them to get stuck watching over a flock of child actors. This has been going on since Charlie Chaplin, was carried into the sound era by the Dead End Kids, achieved a kind of transcendency in "Mary Poppins" re-emerged with "Mr. Mom" and found it's modern-age structure in "Mrs. Doubtfire." There's a whole subgenre beneath this subgenre, too, of entries where the "big-joke" is that a "tuff guy" is doing the babysitting. Hulk Hogan, the Barbarian Brothers and even Arnold himself have all gone to this well; but of all of them only Arnie's entry "Kindergarten Cop" is really worth mentioning for the head-slapper realization that it's much more interesting to put cute little kids into a dangerous Schwarzenegger movie than it is to put dangerous Schwarzenegger into a cute little kids movie.

Originally intended as a Jackie Chan vehicle, "The Pacifier" is Diesel's turn on the ride. He plays Shane Wolfe, a Navy SEAL (because really, what other job does someone named Shane Wolfe have?) recently recovering from his first failed mission: The rescue of a U.S. scientist who's new super-secret weapons system, "G.H.O.S.T.," is desired by "the enemy." With the scientist dead, the government spirits his widow off to help retrieve G.H.O.S.T.'s launch key (or activation code, or something like that) from a Swiss Bank, while Wolfe is assinged to protect the late doctor's five children. And I bet you think you're real clever for having already guessed that the brood includes a pair of gradeschool moppets (for cuteness), a baby (for poop jokes) and two dating-age teens (for Important Lessons.)

You could draw a map of this movie just by looking at the poster. In terms of plot, even for this genre, it doesn't have an original plot turn or idea in it's head: It's instantly discernable which kid Wolfe will develop the biggest rapport with, (anyone wanna lay money on it NOT being the one he'd seem to have the least in common with and, thus, innevitably learn the most Important Lessons from?), which will prove more important to the plot than it would first appear, which supporting characters will turn into love-interests, etc. You can actually count the beats toward obligatory scenes like "Wolfe Finds Out He Has To Stay Longer," "Teens Throw Big Party While Wolfe Is Out" and, of course, "Wolfe Teaches One Kid's Nemesis A Thing Or Two." And hey, who wants to bet that there's some Bad Guys slinking around obviously in the supporting cast, waiting for the beat in Act Three where the film turns back into an action movie and... gasp!... stuff that the characters learned from one another earlier in comedy scenes come back into play to save the day! Wow. I mean, raw genius, that's what this screenplay must've been.

Now folks, it's not that I want to play party-pooper movie-snob, ragging on the cute lil' babysitting movie and all the nice lil' casual-filmgoers who'll see it and possibly enjoy it. I like a good mass-market comedy as much as anyone, when it's done right. There's potential in this premise, perhaps not for a great or even good movie buy maybe at least for a funny and diverting one. I like Vin Diesel, and I'd like to see him get out of this slump. But "The Pacifier" just isn't very good, even when graded on the curve of the rest of this genre.

Too much of the movie, truly, is just plain clumsy. Potentially funny scenes and situations fall apart because of huge flaws in the logic of their setups: It's funny and kinda makes sense (in a movie-logic sort of way) that a trained SEAL wouldn't know how to change a diaper, but that he'd never encountered a minivan? Operate seat-belts? That's not funny, that's stupid. And ask yourself this: Would the Vice Principal of a K-through-12 school in an affluent suburb EVER get away, in this day and age, with the open and constant taunting of a young male student as a "twinkletoes," not to mention encouraging other male students to beat him up?

The film features a pair of big action scenes, (not counting the required "this guy is a badass" opening-credits sequence,) both of which appear to have remained intact from when Jackie Chan was to star (you'll see what I mean.) The first has Diesel in a martial-arts duel against a pair of Ninjas (really) that come crashing into the house. No, I'm not kidding, Ninjas. Now, while the scene does a lot to A.) prove that Diesel is a splendidly-gifted physical actor and B.) prove that I'm right when I say that Ninjas can make almost any movie a little bit better, it comes a little too early and plays a little too "harsh" for it to be plausible that the characters would immediately snap back into babysitter-movie-mode once they were dispatched. The scene just doesn't feel like a real part of the rest of the movie, with Diesel's Wolfe suddenly gaining the superpowers of a Hong Kong kung-fu star when he previously had difficulty restraining an elderly Czech nanny (don't ask.) The second is a "maze of traps" bit near the end involving G.H.O.S.T. that pushes the film way over the silly-cliff but also marks it's most original moment ("original" in that I can only remember the same basic idea being used once or twice before, whereas the rest of the film's moments have been used a hundred times before.)

There is one subplot I had to smile at: Wolfe's duties as defacto "den mother" to the female-moppet's Girl Scout troop. It's funny because the pseudo-similarity of Wolfe's military background to the Scouts, and vice-versa, is actually a fun dynamic to explore; i.e. it's funny to see a Navy SEAL leading a "mission" of little girls, and likewise it's cute to see little girls acting like Navy SEALs. It occurs to me that a movie only about a tough military-man becoming the leader of a girl scout troop would probably be a lot funnier than "The Pacifier" where it's just a diversion. Someone should make that. With "The Rock." That I'd go see.

What's really unforgivable, from a story perspective, is that the film has great material at it's fingertips that it never uses. Consider: It was Wolfe's job to save these kids' father, and he failed. Which means he's now acting as surrogate father to a family who's real father's death is partially his responsibility, right? Shouldn't this be weighing on his mind? Mightn't that be a factor in his (innevitable) "attachment" to the job? And what about the kids? Surely, they'll find out eventually and furiously confront Wolfe about it? It'd lead to a terrific "everything on the table" beginning to the 3rd act, wherein the kids come to forgive Wolfe for their father's death as he vows "not to fail you like I failed your father...," no? Yeah, I thought so, too... but this stuff is NOWHERE IN THE FILM. I'm serious, the material "The Pacifier" needs to push it's characters up to the makings of a good movie is right there in the backstory, and it does nothing with it. This is almost criminal-negligence at the script level.

Vin Diesel needs a hit, and this will probably be one. It's certainly not his worst film, though in a filmography where the biggest hits are about street-racing as a religious experience and a guy who can overcome terrorists by snowboarding thats really kind of a backhanded compliment. I still believe there's good things ahead for Diesel, and if he needs a family-friendly entry like "The Pacifier" to get his career back on track I can respect that. It's not even the worst movie in the genre (thanks, Barbarian Brothers!)

But Vin... Mr. Diesel... please: When the gross comes back on this and Disney's eyes light up and they greenlight "Pacifier 2: It's Changing Time" and they've got Shane Wolfe housesitting a bunch of cats because the recently-deceased old lady who'd owned them invented NORAD and they think one of them swallowed the encryption code and Wolfe has to learn about feline care and makes pals with the one cat all the others ignore and he falls in love with a beautiful young Pet Psychic or whatever the hell dumb idea Disney comes up with for the sequel... Don't do it.



Scott said...

Wow, "Alone in the Dark," "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "The Pacifier" all in just over one month's time. I feel your pain, though I must ask: WHY?

Bob said...

Mainly for the practice of keeping my brain sharp, honestly. If you want to write about and make films as I hope to one day, (yeah I know, amateur critic who really wants to direct, betcha didn't see that one coming,) I think you have to study the subject as much as possible; and in the end there's usually more to learn from failure than from success :)