January 28, 2010

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Tooth Fairy (PG)
Dwayne Johnson puts some pink tights and a fluffy tutu on his pro-wrestler’s frame in the silly family comedy Tooth Fairy.

Because a dude dressing up like a fairy ballerina is funny, this movie figures, and it works that premise for all it’s worth.

Derek Thompson (Johnson) is an aging star on a local hockey team. His nickname is the Tooth Fairy because he’s known for a rough and tumble style that often leaves the opposing team’s teeth on the ice. But his stardom is not an example of his being all he can be. After suffering an injury in a big-league game years ago, he dramatically lowered his ambitions and decided to be happy with modest success. It’s a philosophy — dreaming big only makes you unhappy — that he spreads to the kids he meets, from the young fans who ask for his autograph (are you the best 8-year-old on your team? That’s nice, somewhere there’s a 7-year-old who can kick your ass) to the children of his girlfriend, Carly (Ashley Judd). She scolds him for his dreamcrushing — learn to say “what if,” she tells him.(So, interesting philosophical question for later: Johnson’s character basically tells kids the truth about life — that it’s likely they won’t be rock stars and should learn to enjoy, say, the insurance business. In this movie, that makes him a big meanie. One could argue, however, that learning to be happy with life as it is, as opposed to life as you wanted it to be in your 8-year-old fantasies, and learning to use your ambition and creativity on more realistic goals — as Johnson’s character does —is an important skill and a key part of growing up. One could argue that this movie’s message is to some degree “maturity is lame; unrealistic expectations are cool.” Is this, ultimately, the best message to send to kids? Discuss amongst yourselves.)

Turns out the real head Tooth Fairy, Lily (Julie Andrews, credibility personified), whose existence he sorta denies to Carly’s young daughter Tess (Destiny Whitlock), isn’t so pleased with his “dreams are for wusses” ideology either. Derek is summoned, traffic-court-style, to fairy land, where his case worker, Tracy (Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais’s inept agent in Extras), informs him that he will have to serve time as a tooth fairy — wand, pastel tights and all.

Thus begins a series of jokes about (1) how ridiculous a big man looks in fairy clothes and wings, (2) how ridiculous it is when a giant fairy tries to sneak into a house without anybody noticing and (3) how, should that man be able to shrink himself, he will appear like a tasty treat to a cat. Because this kind of humor isn’t exactly fodder for non-stop knee-slapping, Billy Crystal shows up to play the tooth fairy gadget-provider, and Merchant, who is what would happen to Ricky Gervais if you turned him three or four notches in the earnest direction, offers cheerfully chuckle-worthy throwaway lines in a British accent.

So, spoiler alert, this movie, fond of the cheap and easy sight gag though it is, never comes up with a bit of funny about the central question of the Tooth Fairy mythology — what does she do with all those teeth? I vaguely remember some picture book from my childhood where she made things out of them — jewelry, assorted bric-a-brac. Even that would be a good answer. I’m not saying this has to be the big payoff of the film, but a little something would have been nice. I know I’m not the only critic making this observation, but in a movie where broad guffaw is the goal, it’s a noticeable hole. And it goes to a kind of not-really-trying quality that pervades the whole movie. It’s not that the movie doesn’t seem to care, it just doesn’t care that much.

And for all its faults, Tooth Fairy does have some giggle-worthy moments. Johnson is a talented enough physical comedian that he can pull off humor even when the material he’s working with is extremely thin. He doesn’t perform any miracles here, but there are bits that come close to the humor level of middling sitcom. Somewhere well north of According to Jim, somewhere a bit south of King of Queens.

Tooth Fairy’s saving grace is that it’s moronic, yes, but kind of endearingly moronic rather than gratingly moronic. Like a dog that’s destructive but too cute for you to punish too much, Tooth Fairy barely escapes getting whacked with a newspaper. C+

Rated PG for mild language, some rude humor and sports action. Directed by Michael Lembeck and written by Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, Joshua Sternin, Jeffrey Ventimilia, Randi Mayem Singer and Jim Piddock, Tooth Fairy is an hour and 42 minutes long and distributed in wide release by 20th Century Fox.