There comes a time in the career of every action hero when he wants to flex his comedic muscles instead of just his arm muscles. Sometimes the results are surprisingly pleasing (think Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins) and other times they’re disastrous (think Sly Stallone in Stop or My Mom Will Shoot!…or Oscar…or Rhinestone). It’s questionable whether Vin Diesel has ever really established himself as an A-list action star – he’s had more misses than hits – but he’s ready for the image change. The Pacifier is not just a comedy, it’s a Walt Disney family comedy. The movie is neither the best nor the worst attempt by an action hero to get laughs. It’s pleasant, I suppose, but awfully familiar and obvious.
Diesel stars as Shane Wolfe, a Navy SEAL leading a mission to rescue a kidnapped scientist who has developed a piece of software technology that foreign nations would love to get their hands on. The mission goes awry, leading to the death of the scientist. No one knows where exactly he hid the software, and someone has been breaking into the man’s house to look for it. The government thinks it might be in a safe deposit box in Switzerland, so they arrange for the man’s widow (Faith Ford) to retrieve the box. This is supposed to take two days, but snafus stretch it out to two weeks. In the meantime, Wolfe is assigned to stay in the suburban Maryland home with the five children (aged infant to 16 years) in case anyone tries to break in again and/or harm them.
The SEAL is not accustomed to taking on a parental role, so he runs the household just as he would a squadron. First, he gives each child a code name (Red One, Red Two, Red Baby, and so on). Next, he straps tracking devices to their wrists. Finally, he wakes them up at six o’clock in the morning for drill routines. The kids initially don’t want this guy in their home, so they devise a series of Home Alone-inspired slapstick shenanigans to get rid of him. By the end, of course, Wolfe has solved all of their problems – taught the oldest girl to drive, defended the oldest boy from bullies, etc. The kids realize that Wolfe is a Really Great Guy, and he realizes that children can be Seriously Cool. Insert lots of hugs and kisses here.
The basic joke in The Pacifier is that macho Vin Diesel must adapt to kiddie culture. He has to do a silly “panda dance” for the youngest boy, for example. And then there are the bodily fluid jokes. If you think diaper humor is funny, then this is the movie for you. I reckon there must have been a diaper joke every 15-20 minutes. To break up the monotony, a few puke jokes are tossed in as well. These are all pretty much the same diaper-and-puke jokes that Eddie Murphy worked in Daddy Day Care, and that Ted Danson worked in Three Men and a Baby, and that Anthony Anderson worked in My Baby’s Daddy, to give just three examples. (There are dozens more.)
I have neglected to mention that Wolfe also forces the children to clean up their academic and behavioral issues at school. Since the principal is a dishy female (Lauren Graham) who also used to be in the Navy, we know instantly that she will become Wolfe’s love interest.
The Pacifier feels like it is on autopilot. There’s no originality here, no spark of life. The picture marches forward on a familiar path, never doing anything unexpected or surprising. It’s totally possible to subvert the expectations of a genre such as the family comedy. I was reminded of a movie I saw as a kid: The Bad News Bears, which took a story that had been done to death and reinvented it with intelligence and attitude. The Pacifier certainly has a few chuckle-worthy moments, but it would have been a lot funnier, for instance, if Shane was really hardcore military rather than a teddy bear hiding behind a hard exterior shell. The script should have played him as a modern-day Patton, scaring the children with his intense, combat-ready style in the early scenes. Eventually, Shane could have realized that kids don’t respond to the same techniques that soldiers do. A simple little shift in comedic style would have undoubtedly generated more big laughs. Diesel would have been up to the task, I think, as he has always displayed a sense of comic timing.
I was also somewhat taken aback by the fact that the movie sends a very clear message that violence is an effective way to solve problems. Wolfe teaches the youngest girl and her friends how to rough up some Cub Scouts who are tormenting them. He also beats up the school wrestling coach (Brad Garrett) in front of the entire student body after the guy repeatedly harasses the teenage boy. At the end, when masked ninjas break into the home, the children help fight them off. The youngest girl gets a big reaction from the crowd by – get ready for this! - kicking a bad guy in the groin! (Oh, does the hilarity never stop?) Some parents might have a problem with the way violence is shown as a viable solution.
The Pacifier is what you would politely call “product.” It is manufactured according to a very specific formula – one that is familiar, comforting, and completely non-threatening. To be perfectly honest, some people will like it a whole lot more than I did. As a film critic, I see hundreds of movies each year, and I have seen these cliches over and over and over again. Nothing in this movie surprised me. I knew the punchline to every joke in advance. I knew who was breaking into the family’s home in search of the software. I knew the little secret held by Wolfe’s commanding officer. People who see fewer movies may not recognize these things as cliches. Others may simply not care; it might be enough that The Pacifier is a safe, non-threatening PG-rated family film.
You probably know by now whether or not you are in the film’s intended audience. Let the ticket buyer proceed with caution.
( out of four)
The Pacifier is rated PG for action violence, language and rude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.
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