The Pacifier (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

To convince Brad Garrett to wear a wrestling singlet, director Adam Shankman reminded him that 'Dignity is trumped by funny.'"

The Pacifier

Director: Adam Shankman
Cast: Vin Diesel, Lauren Graham, Faith Ford, Brittany Snow, Max Thieriot, Chriss Potter, Carol Kane, Brad Garrett
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Buena Vista Pictures
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2005-06-28
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Now here's something hilarious: Brittany Snow didn't actually know how to blow bubbles, so she had to train for like a month to be learn how to blow this bubble.
-- Adam Shankman, commentary, The Pacifier

Is this what you're trained to do? A shock and awe on my door?
-- Seth (Max Thieriot), The Pacifier

"Vin did basically all of his own jet-ski stuff." Whew. Thank you Adam Shankman, for relieving all who worried that the Diesel sold out by doing a kids' flick. You know, like Eddie Murphy, Arnold, Ice Cube, and Martin Lawrence -- all angling for the influence and big fat money available to any former action/actionish star willing to endure children splatting them with goo. In fact, Diesel, replacing Jackie Chan in The Pacifier, doesn't acquit himself particularly well (at some moments he seems like he's joking, his performance is so wooden), but he survives the falls and the fart-and-pee jokes.

The new DVD's appropriately snarky commentary -- by director Shankman and writers Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant -- offers several insights regarding the making of a movie designed to make everyone look silly. Other, less interesting extras include deleted scenes, bloopers, a couple of featurettes ("Brad Garrett: Unpacified" and "On Set With Mr. Diesel: Action Hero/Nice Guy," featuring happy-chat with cast and crew), and an array of tv commercials targeting different audiences.

In The Pacifier, thick-necked, one-raced Diesel plays Shane, a Navy SEAL assigned to babysit a family of kiddies while their mom Julie (Faith Ford) is away trying to guess her never-home-but-still-beloved-and-now-dead scientist husband's secret password. It seems that the very idea of the mission -- he only does diapers because he's been assigned -- makes father-figurehood a matter of national security. Go team.

Shane is, of course, a terrible parental stand-in at first, because the deal is, such domesticity is strictly girls' territory. And Shane, you know, is all man. Still, he soldiers on, even when the baby's nanny, a horrifying witchy sort named, pathetically, Helga (Carol Kane, looking as frighteningly bedraggled and truck-slammed as she ever has) walks out. She's a quitter, by Shane's standards, but clearly, the scheming kids -- including cheerleader Zoe (Brittany Snow) and aspiring actor Seth (Max Thieriot) -- know how to push Home Alone-ish buttons. That the physical damage and indignities they plan for Shane befall Helga only makes their machinations seem cruel.

Without Helga, Shane turns into an especially egregious Major Dad, barking orders as his "recruits" look on with a mix of practiced disinterest and absolute, unhideable horror. "We're gonna do it my way," he grunts, "no highway option," not incidentally, the same line he uses on nefarious threats to the U.S. in an early scene that establishes two things that hold for the duration of the film: first, Shane is an expert pain inflictor, and second, everyone's performances -- or rather, line readings -- are so conspicuously stiff and unconvincing that you might imagine they were doing it on purpose, though to what end remains unclear. (Since the film did so stunningly well at the box office, making some $112 million domestically, you might also imagine that a sequel is in the works.)

The assignment ends up lasting more than the couple of days initially laid out. And so Shane undertakes not only to look after the brood, but to reshape them, to improve their lives by ordering them. This entails meeting with the school principal, Claire (Lauren Graham, who so needs to hire a new agent: what was she thinking by signing on for this?), who happens to be Navy trained, and so, you guessed it, the ideal match for the romantically ignorant Shane. (He's been so dedicated to his "country," he's never had time for another relationship.) Claire is sensible, sweet, and hard-ass all at once, all appealing to Shane, and she's rather touched by his decision to watch the kids all day at school, with infant strapped to his chest while he monitors the others through binoculars and tracking devices.

When Zoe and Seth find a way to send their locked-down wrist devices into the sewer, Shane takes off with a vengeance, imagining all sorts of disaster has befallen his charges. He emerges from the sewer gunked up with putridity (Shankman, ever the joker, asserts, "That's real sewage, I wanted him to have the experience"), then makes his way back to the house so he make a smelly entrance and declaration of his outrage and the resulting new rules. The image -- the kids and the extraordinarily attentive principal, waiting in the living room for Shane's return, all holding their noses and eyes widening at the flies buzzing -- is close to the film's highlight. That, and the cut to the next shot: Vin in the shower. "This one's for the moms," notes Shankman. "That's all CG, too, he's actually only a five-feet-three skinny little guy."

When he hears from Zoe that he has "no feelings," Shane begins to wonder if maybe this is true. And so he reluctantly pursues a second agenda, apart from protecting the kids from ruthless killers. His next steps include soothing Zoe's distress over the loss of her father (this being the only display that anyone makes concerning the dead guy, but really, who cares?) and aiding Seth in his daily struggles with the school bully, in this case, the Vice Principal and wrestling coach (and terminally repressed) Duane Murney (Brad Garrett), who greets Shane at school with a slow once-over: "You've got a real upper torso going on. You ever do any time?" Taking down this goon apparently makes Shane a real man in Seth's eyes.

To be fair, Murney does provide Shankman and fellow commentators with some joyous moments: suggesting that Murney needs his own spin-off, they riff on the possibilities: "Operation Murney," they giggle, sort of "like McHale's Navy with kids: 'The Army needs you to teach these kids basketball, for some reason, Murney!'" when Shane takes down Murney in a wrestling showdown (Shankman says that to convince Garrett to wear a singlet, he reminded him that "Dignity is trumped by funny"), where Shane demonstrates some nasty-looking moves, the chicken wing, the arm bar, and crow bar. "Brad is the king of committing," exult the commentators. "He's as scary as the Tasmanian devil."

As if all this isn't enough, the plot takes up a hysterical war-on-terror theme that would be comic if it weren't so pathetic. In between learning to appreciate one another and cleaning the house for mom's return, Diesel and kids do battle with ninja-suited North Korean spies (Denis Akiyama and Mung-Ling Tsui) and a highly predictable traitor -- if you don't spot him within two minutes, you're just not paying attention, which still seems the least painful approach to this mess.

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