I’ve always been an unabashed fan of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson a magnetic screen presence whose charm and charisma more than make up for his shortcomings as an actor. That said even I’m finding it harder to defend his choices of roles over the past few years including his most recent turn in the family comedy The Tooth Fairy. Striving to produce quality family-friendly entertainment is certainly a commendable goal Rock but could you do us a favor and throw in the occasional R-rated (or at least PG-13) action flick every once in a while? Please?
The plot of The Tooth Fairy is standard kids-movie stuff: Johnson plays a gruff self-centered minor-league hockey player who after crushing the dreams of a few wide-eyed youngsters is sentenced to two weeks of community service as a tooth fairy. Handed wings a magic wand invisibility spray and other standard fairy accoutrements he’s sent to various children’s houses where he must brave all matter of domestic hazards to fulfill his tooth fairy obligations.
The Rock is usually the best part of otherwise underwhelming movies like this but he actually stumbles out of the gate in The Tooth Fairy overdosing on cheese and ham in an awkward first act. What ultimately makes the movie work is British comic Stephen Merchant recognizable to some as the hapless agent of Ricky Gervais’ chronically underemployed actor in HBO’s Extras who plays The Rock’s beleaguered fairy case worker. With his thin frame and his subtle sharp wit he provides the perfect foil for The Rock’s oversized personality creating just enough of a comedic spark to make The Tooth Fairy a relatively enjoyable if altogether unspectacular experience for both the kids and their babysitters.
Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) a bleeding heart poet and staunch environmentalist is convinced a series of unexplained coincidences involving a tall African doorman somehow mean something leading him to married metaphysicians Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin)--otherwise known as the Existential Detectives. Instead of looking for other people this pair tirelessly investigates the mysteries of their clients' secret innermost lives--their "Beings " so to speak--to help them answer their questions. Immediately digging in Bernard and Vivian find out that Albert has a deep-seated hatred for Brad Stand (Jude Law) a golden-boy sales executive at the popular retail superstore chain Huckabees who at first sponsors Albert's Open Spaces Coalition to save a nearby marsh from commercial construction but who ends up taking over the coalition. The Existential Detectives believe Brad may be the key to cracking Albert's case but get sidetracked when Brad hires them for himself--leading them to explore Brad's ambitions hang-ups and his superficial relationship with Huckabees' hot blonde spokesmodel Dawn (Naomi Watts). Meanwhile Albert becomes disenfranchised with Bernard and Vivian and pairs up with another of the duo's clients--firefighter tough guy and uncompromising soul searcher Tommy (Mark Wahlberg). Together they join forces with the Jaffes' arch nemesis sexy French philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) whose life teachings revolve around "cruelty manipulation and meaninglessness." Now as Being intermixes with Nothingness Albert Tommy Brad Dawn Bernard Vivian and Caterine get all tangled up in one another as their wild romp through life's biggest questions brings them to some startling truths. Whew!
With such a clever script to back them up it isn't hard to see why the Huckabees wannabes turn in some cracking good performances. Schwartzman once again plays a nebbish sullen but lovable geek (similar to his side-splitting turn in Rushmore) bringing out the film's heart and soul especially with his environmental poetry ("You ROCK rock!"). Veterans Hoffman and Tomlin who are dead-on as the happily married Existential Detectives and Huppert as the deadpan French philosopher complement the proceedings beautifully. For the first time in a long time Hoffman doesn't overplay his part instead letting his quiet inner "Being" out taking his character's philosophies to heart ("Everything you ever desired or wanted to be you already have and are"). But who knew more serious actors--Mark Wahlberg Jude Law and Naomi Watts--could be so excruciatingly funny? Wahlberg's freethinking obstinate firefighter would rather ride a bike to a fire than get into a gas-guzzling fire truck while Watts' Dawn decides she doesn't need to be pretty and is fearless with overalls a bonnet and Oreo cookies stuck in her teeth. As the straight man Law actually has the most difficult part playing the handsome cad who thinks he doesn't believe in all that existential bullcrap but ever so slightly gets slammed with the reality of it anyway.
Writer/director David O. Russell is one fascinating guy. With a body of work including the really weird and wild Spanking the Monkey the hilarious slapsticky Flirting With Disaster and the intense Three Kings it's obvious he is capable of handling a wide variety of subjects. With Huckabees Russell gets into some serious deep thinking. He says he became "intrigued with the idea of a detective following someone around not for any criminal or personal intrigue but rather as part of a very serious investigation about existence itself " drawing concepts from several different strains of existentialism--from the non-dual interconnectedness theories of Eastern philosophy (Bernard and Vivian's take) to the Sartrean notions of a more meaningless universe that demands a profound individualism (Caterine's point of view). Huh? Don't worry your pretty little heads about it too much. Russell's bone-crushing sense of humor comes shining through--as does his unique vision as the camera is used in new and different ways (especially creative when Albert is trying to find his "Being")--to piece together a wondrous coherent albeit thought-provoking little gem. Oscar gold awaits.
January 11, 2002 11:05am EST
Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks) is sitting on the beach pondering the mysteries of life after losing his surfing buddy to a tsunami when he finds a copy of Marcus Skinner's novel Straitjacket buried in the sand. The book by a mythical Kerouac-type author who teaches at Stanford University profoundly influences Shaun who in turn decides he will become a writer. But Shaun's dreams of attending Stanford and studying under the guidance of his new mentor get squashed when a scatterbrained guidance counselor sends the wrong transcripts to the university. With the help of his peace-loving girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk) and his junkie brother Lance (Jack Black) the trio sets off to Stanford to convince school officials to reconsider his application before the deadline the following day. After a series of catastrophes Shaun becomes convinced that his dysfunctional family is conspiring to keep him in Orange County.
Colin Hanks (Get Over It not to mention Tom Hank's son) is the film's protagonist Shaun Brumder. He and his on-screen sweetheart played by Schuyler Fisk (Snow Day not to mention Sissy Spacek's daughter) bring quality to a good script suffering from shaky direction. The two interact quite naturally and make a pretty sweet couple. Jack Black (Shallow Hal) is hysterical and not just when he is standing around half-naked and dirty. Some of the funniest scenes are when Black's character Lance tries to be serious and stoned at the same time. Catherine O'Hara (Best in Show) plays Shaun's boozy mother without going over the top and John Lithgow (Third Rock from the Sun) is equally convincing as his rich father now married to someone half his age. There are several notable cameo appearances from actors including Lily Tomlin Ben Stiller Kevin Kline and Chevy Chase but they do not bring anything unique to their performances.
Orange County is directed by Jake Kasdan (Zero Effect) who more recently directed episodes of teen TV series Freaks and Geeks Undeclared and Grosse Pointe--and it shows. While the script is hilarious and the acting above par the pacing is a bit uneven. The film jumps from really gross shots of Black prancing around in his skanky underpants to sentimentalized family issues that are a little too real to be funny. Then we are subject to scenes of Shaun's wheelchair-bound stepfather rolling out onto the street and getting hit by a car being the target of falling objects or crying out in pain because no one remembers to give him his medication. When did the blatant neglect of invalids become funny? Unfortunately these elements did not come together very well. Of course Kasdan does not resist the temptation of subjecting us to a dreaded college frat party scene involving flaky teenage girls and pompous college boys that with the help of Monica Keena (Undeclared) almost felt like a sitcom.