Ivan Reitman’s Kindergarten Cop – the 1990 comedy in which a kid-hating Arnold Schwarzenegger goes undercover as a teacher in order to catch a drug dealer, but ends up learning a thing or two himself – is a touchstone for many childhoods. It introduced the unlikely catchphrase “It’s not a toooom-mur” into the cultural lexicon, and won big at Cannes in the Best Scatology Category. (The second part might not actually be true.) Fifteen years later, action star and noted “candy ass” Vin Diesel tried to repeat the same trick in The Pacifier.
It didn’t go well. Critics rightly pointed out the facts that it is very bad and not funny and also terrible, but The Pacifier did gross $113M, enough to qualify it as the 17th highest-grossing film of 2005 (and legitimate Forgotbuster). Audiences seemed primed for Diesel’s send-up of his persona, or at the very least decided that sounded marginally better than Cheaper By The Dozen 2, Are We There Yet?, and Monster-In-Law.
Like its Schwarzenegger-hamming predecessor, The Pacifier is all in on puns and poop, not necessarily in that order. Diesel plays a Navy SEAL by the very Navy SEAL-like name of Lieutenant Shane Wolfe, a best-of-the-best military man known for his bravery, skill, and ability to neutralize, even pacify, his enemies.
A top-secret project, involving Serbian rebels and a safety deposit box, goes violently awry, leading to the death of his commander, and Wolfe finds himself assigned to both protect the man’s family and unravel this international mystery. In the process, he will fight North Korean martial arts experts and perform a series of stunts lifted wholesale from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, all while bonding with a mop-topped pack of rapscallions, instilling military discipline in the house, teaching the teenager daughter to drive, directing the son’s adaptation of The Sound of Music, turning a Brownie troop into a Navy SEAL-esque fighting force, falling in love with the principal, and getting pooped on frequently.
Writers Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, both most well-known for their work on The State, seem to have something more subversive in mind than what appears on the screen. The Pacifier wants to do (sigh) double-duty, a family-friendly romp that also functions as a satire of the genre’s tropes, something like They Came Together for people who enjoy nut-shots with alarming enthusiasm.
If so, it seems they forgot to tell the cast. Everyone is so bland and playing things so straight that the laughs are strangled to death, Navy SEAL-like, long before they have any chance to materialize. Almost-funny moments – like Diesel proclaiming “These kids are in for a rude awakening” before waking them up with a whistle, rudely – sit awkwardly next to maudlin moments, like when our hero bonds, through rooftop conversation, with the daughter over shared paternal loss. Like a tough-guy military man suddenly in charge of raising other people’s children, The Pacifier has no idea what it’s doing.
This doesn’t just apply to Diesel’s uncomfortable attempts at sentiment. In one of the film’s stranger plot points, the machismo-fueled idiot of a wrestling coach discovers a swastika patch in the son’s locker. Convinced that the effeminate, theater-loving child whose young manhood he routinely insults is, in fact, a genocidal fascist, rather than starring in The Sound of Music (which, admittedly, also doesn’t make any sense but is at least more in fitting with the character), Diesel is hauled into the principal’s office.
Appealing to everyone’s good graces and empathy, The Pacifier plaintively notes, “Look, he’s a troubled kid, but … he’s not a Nazi.” Diesel’s delivery suggests exasperation, as though this is a normal thing and one he often has had to emphasize over the years to school administrators. As Nazi jokes go, it’s pretty lackluster.
Unfortunately, The Pacifier finds it funny. The Pacifier finds many things funny – poop in diapers, poop on faces, Neo-Nazi-based misunderstandings, the notion that Vin Diesel has boobs. But the film’s most curious fixation is on the family’s crotch-and-ear-biting pet duck, Gary.
Why the family has this psychopathic pet duck is never really grappled with in any serious way, though Gary apparently found his way into the script when Jackie Chan was signed on to play Diesel’s role. (Chan, who viewers may remember i Asian, wanted to cook Gary and eat him, sufficiently horrifying the kids to the point that Gary became part of the family. This is what is known as “stupid”, and also “racist”.)
Gary is never funny, but he did offer Diesel the opportunity to drop this bizarre stream-of-consciousness reflection on a hapless interviewer:
How tough was working with the duck?
The duck was everything you could imagine. The duck was supposedly a very gentle duck. I mean, when they described how the bite would feel, they basically did this to my finger [rubs finger]. It’ll never be more than that. Are you sure that’s not going to draw blood and I’m going to get infected by some kind of lake disease? No, because there’s no lake.
I’m sure Diesel is a very nice man, but as this reveals, he’s also clearly insane. The duck was “everything you could imagine”? What does this mean? Why would I imagine anything about Gary the Duck, much less everything? Why is Diesel recreating this conversation about “lake disease” in real-time for some trade writer who just wanted a funny duck story?
Honestly, The Pacifier would’ve benefited from more of this sort of madness, which is more interesting than anything on screen. Instead, we have a film that alternates between tepid and bizarrely violent, wacky and sappy, overloaded and underplayed.
Diesel has shown the ability to be pretty charming, and The State writers have had many funny moments, but The Pacifier provides no evidence for either claim.
Unless you think poop is funny, in which case, you’ve found your new favorite movie.