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By Michael Atkinson
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The Pacifier, starring human battering ram Vin Diesel as a Navy S.E.A.L. ordered to protect five kids from baddies out to steal their dead dad's invention, was written by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, two members of the defunct MTV comedy troupe The State. Lennon, however, is best known as the blond-highlighted, neatly mustached Lieutenant Jim Dangle, a gay Steve McQueen in short shorts, on Comedy Central's improvised Cops-mock Reno 911! , where Garant also stars as redneck Deputy Travis Junior, a man who once tried to instruct German shepherds using French commands. Garant and Lennon co-created the show, a dead-on workplace comedy in which the lunatics not only run the asylum, but also carry loaded weapons to work. You could dismiss the show as the stuff of stoner giggles were it not so painfully accurate in its depictions of workplace romances, squabbles and frustrations. What makes Reno 911!so brilliant isn't its broad swipes but its sharp points; it's wicked, un-P.C. satire dolled up as dumbed-down Fox fodder.
Based on the success of their TV work, beloved among those who swim in the deep end of bong water, Lennon and Garant have done considerable rewrite work on scripts considered not funny enough; among others, they're said to have added to Starsky & Hutchthe scene in which Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson show up at a bat mitzvah party dressed as mimes -- good enough for a smile, but not much else. Indeed, their film work suggests the duo are better suited to projects that don't actually use scripts; Garant and Lennon also wrote last year's Taxi, which made an obscenity of the phrase "Jimmy Fallon star vehicle." The Pacifier is no less dreadful.
To suggest that it's a disappointment simply because Lennon and Garant's names are attached to the project would reveal unforgiving naiveté; it may well have been a terrific script, as wry and knowing and subversive as their TV work, till it fell into the soft hands of director Adam Shankman (Bringing Down the House and A Walk to Remember) and desperate Disney execs trying to save a crumbling kingdom. Ultimately, it has the stink of a movie made by committee, a product focus-grouped till it was bland enough to appeal to everyone and no one at all. It looks sloppy and dinky, like something better suited to air during the afternoon on the Disney-owned ABC Family network.
It's also a bizarre hodgepodge of influences: Kindergarten Copmeets Sound of Music, filtered through the Hulk Hogan movie Mr. Nanny. Its plot -- in which a gruff hater of children comes to bond with a house full of troubled kids to whom he teaches the meaning of life and love -- is so threadbare, it couldn't hold a soap bubble. Two years ago, this was the milieu in which David Spade tried to revive his lackluster career before heading off to the long-distance-commercial hinterlands. Now it's the sputtering Diesel lugging his hulking frame into the suburbs, where the star of xXx, The Fast and the Furious, and Pitch Blackfits in like a leper at Club Med.
The formula, by now so overused it's actually formless, is pure Disney: At the movie's beginning, a scientist named Howard Plummer (Tate Donovan, in one of those blink-and-you-miss-it cameos) is rescued by Lieutenant Shane Wolfe (Diesel), then promptly executed off screen; he's Bambi's mother or Nemo's mommy, cannon fodder whose death sets the plot in motion. But the plot is merely a math equation: Five kids + one tough bastard = group hug before closing credits. There are variables, of course -- the casting of poor Carol Kane as a Slavic nanny who disappears in the first reel; Brad Garrett as the mean-spirited vice principal and wrestling coach; and Kid in the Hall Scott Thompson as a theater director with all of sixty seconds of screen time -- but the answer is always the same.
Shane's assigned to protect Plummer's kids while his widow (Faith Ford) goes to Switzerland with another Navy officer to find her late husband's research, which, of course, is vital to national security. At first the kids, including Brittany Snow as oldest daughter Zoe and Max Thieriot as teenage son Seth, resist his barked orders, acting petulant but never quite broken up over their dad's death. But they warm to each other, of course, in a musical montage during which Shane teaches Zoe how to drive, Seth how to sing and dance as Rolf in a production of The Sound of Music, and twelve-year-old Lulu (Morgan York) how to fight. Shane even takes to singing and dancing little Peter (played by twins Keegan and Logan Hoover) to sleep every night and learns how to change a poopy diaper. There is also the requisite love interest: The Gilmore Girls' Lauren Graham as the school principal, herself a former Navy officer who still digs a man in uniform.
The Pacifierwill perhaps be remembered as the first family comedy in which the North Koreans show up as the bad guys; turns out they pay better than the American government, says Shane's higher-up as he points the pistol at his pal. Also, for the kids, there are several uses of the word "hell," the discovery of a swastika armband in a high school locker, and a scene in which an underage driver leads the cops on a high-speed chase through a residential neighborhood. Please, for God's sakes, somebody dial 911.
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