It has a concept so “high” you’d swear it (or its creators) were on drugs. It stars an actor so genial and yet limited in range that it’s hard to tell when he’s giving a good performance or just smiling really, really hard. The supporting cast consists of people who should have known better (Stephen Merchant, Ashley Judd), deserve better (Julie Andrews) and better not ever grace the big screen again (Billy Crystal). And, per every family film made since 1988, we must suffer the random biological bon mots of kids who are neither realistic (a 12 year old who can shred like Clapton?) nor embraceable (is there such a thing as being too cloying and cute?).
And yet, for some strange reason, Tooth Fairy is not the out and out bomb it portends to be. Oh sure, it’s silly and cinematically naïve, tossing formulas and stereotypes at the screen that were decidedly old hat decades before. But if there is one thing director Michael Lembeck knows, it’s how to stretch the credibility of a fantasy premise while never really giving over to outright preposterousness. Ever since he took the reigns of the Santa Clause franchise from fellow TV journeyman John Pasquin, he’s a shown a remarkable resilience against artistic or aesthetic considerations. Instead, he knows product, which is exactly what this otherwise trivial effort is.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays Derek Thompson, a washed up ex-major league hockey player treading career water in the minors. He is nicknamed “the tooth fairy” because of his bruising, battering style – and the resulting effect it has on opponent’s dental work. One night, while kissing up to his girlfriend’s (Judd) children, he denies the existence of the real tooth fairy. This sets off a cosmic chain reaction by which Derek is summoned before the head of all fictional incisor investigators (Andrews), assigned the job of temporary tooth fairy, and given a case worker (Merchant) and a supply wiz (Crystal) to help him learn the ropes. Along the way, Derek must prove to his lady love that he’s serious about their relationship and his ability to connect with her kids (including sullen guitar prodigy Randy), while doing the whole ‘money for molars’ thing and warding off the cocky professional advances of new hot rookie prospect Mick Donnelly (Ryan Sheckler).
Battling between decent and desperate, Tooth Fairy is a failure in only the slightest sense. It will definitely please the under ten crowd while giving otherwise clueless parents a patented 100 minute diversion for said entertainment novices. Johnson, already established as someone capable of carrying a film, finds the proper balance between cockiness and kookiness while never once betraying the bizarro world ideas involved here. The script, credited to a cadre of six screenwriters (including the haven’t-been-relevant-since-Reagan team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) is nothing more than a recycled collection of riffs, rejected references, and slight sketch comedy absurdity. Yet thanks to Lembeck and his casual, capable star, we don’t feel like running from the theater shrieking…
…that is, until Crystal shows up. Railroading his dialogue like the Buddy Young Jr. he used to be/now clearly is, this uncredited cameo (which goes on for far too long) signifies everything that’s wrong with Tooth Fairy. Up until the moment that his Q-like character is introduced, we can see Lambeck struggling to keep the magic intact. As fairy themed jokes, puns, and questionable entendres push and pull, he maintains the earnest entertainment equilibrium. Then Mr. Borscht Belt shows up and turns the entire thing into his own personal Senior Citizen Resort stand-up audition tape. His rapid fire shtick fails time and time again, never once delivering the sidesplitting punchlines proposed. Even worse, we can tell that Lambeck, out of fear or false admiration, simply set up his camera and let Crystal go. The results are just painful.
There are other off kilter moments here as well. Family Guy‘s Seth MacFarlane shows up as Ziggy, a black market supplier of magical fairy products. His appearance is brief, baffling, and ultimately pointless. Similarly, a running gag revolving around amnesia powder has some potential, but is handled in a sloppy, silly manner. Indeed, a great deal of Tooth Fairy is overtly foolish, flailing around like a five year old that forgot to take its Ritalin. The movie never earns its emotions, tries mightily to manage its kitchen sink sense of story, and bases much of its intentions on the likability of the man wearing the wings. If Johnson ever needs proof that he can weather an otherwise outdate idea, this is it. That doesn’t mean the audience has to like it.
In fact, the reason the so-called ‘high concept’ comedy disappeared from your local Bijou is inherent in every frame of Tooth Fairy. Instead of character or crass driven laughfests like The Hangover or Knocked Up, this Greed decade distraction was all about star power, overpriced scripts, and supersized talent agency manipulation. Something like Junior (a pregnant man!) or Twins (a jock and a joke are genetic siblings!) worked way back when because of the individuals hawking both in front of and behind the scenes. But more recent examples like Little Man and White Chicks have shown how limited, and ultimately lame, the genre is. Sure, Roland Emmerich can get away with wiping out 80% of the world’s population in something like 2012, but that’s because he has the special effects chutzpah to back it up. Tooth Fairy has no such support system.
And yet, once again, we aren’t completely remiss in our begrudging belief in the material. It’s all about salesmanship, and Lembeck and Johnson are true closers. Sure, everything outside our star wearing a tutu feels tacked on and unnecessary. Yes, Merchant tries almost as hard as Crystal to win us over (luckily, he has the perfect post-modern UK chops to handle the task). Granted, there are one too many ‘that’s the tooth’/’it’s time for fairy-oake’ jokes and the ending feels slapdash and dumb. When it doesn’t try to be everything to everyone, Tooth Fairy works, more or less. The rest of the time, it is relentlessly inane.