It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m packed in a van with twelve or thirteen women, all mothers and bloggers, aka “mommy bloggers.” Introductions are made quickly; Twitter handles are exchanged in the same breath as first names. The membrane between the internet and IRL is thin. We’re tweeting about talking about tweeting.
We’re all guests of Universal Studios Orlando and the production of Tooth Fairy 2, a direct-to-video sequel to the Dwayne “Rock” Johnson vehicle released in 2008. This latest incarnation stars Larry the Cable Guy. It’s out on home video today. So instead of a wrestler in pink tights, we’re getting a redneck in pink tights. I’m guessing the tightness is part of the appeal.
I feel like a wolf in the proverbial Hollywood hen house. I’ve been admitted under cover of “daddy blogging,” but the plan I’ve discussed with my editor Jeff Giles is to try and be the secret smartass of the group, observing in silence only to roundly mock the collective medicrity of Larry the Cable Guy, his new film project, and everything they both represent, possibly in relation to how the vast bulk of childrens’ entertainment always seems to be unmitigated shit.
That didn’t work out so good. Although I’m still right about that last part.
We arrive at Universal and travel a short distance behind the tourist facade until we reach a row of studio spaces. The Orlando incarnation of Universal is more theme park than movie studio, but there is actual production. They film the lottery drawings here; they tape a weekly wrestling show. At least one incarnation of Family Feud called this studio home. We’re escorted into a cavernous, unused space outfitted with some tables and chairs, our home base for the day.
Suddenly, there’s a pig.
The pig is named Crusher and apparently it is a co-star in Tooth Fairy 2. We gather around like Crusher is our adorable newborn nephew and take photos as we pepper the trainer with questions. “A lot of CGI is taking our work, generating things I used to have to train,” she says.
The trainer tells us how she got into the business–she was camping when she was sixteen, swimming with friends, and two random kids asked her what she would do if she could do anything in the world. She replied that she’d like to train animals for the movies. That was the first time she’d realized where her life would lead. By the age of twenty, she was doing it.
“I’ve always done it, and I’m so grateful,” she says. “Those two boys have no idea how they impacted my life.”
We all nod. We keep snapping the pig, but we’re really just waiting for Larry the Cable Guy.
Alan Blomquist is a producer whose credits include Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, and Walk the Line. Also Spawn, the Blue Collar Comedy films, and Larry the Cable Guy’s previous film credits, such as Witless Protection and Bait Shop.
“Even after we made it, we had no idea what we had,” Blomquist says of the Blue Collar Comedy franchise, which has sold nearly 5 million DVDs. “That fell into my lap. I met the laywer for the film on a ski trip with my sons. I thought, ‘What do I know from redneck?’”
Now he produces movies for Larry the Cable Guy in Orlando, about a half-hour’s drive from Sanford, which is where Larry makes his home. (Or rather, made his home; he’s since moved to Nebraska to be closer to family.) Universal provides the studio space; downtown Sanford provides exterior locations.
Someone asks Blomquist what the “theme” of Tooth Fairy 2 will be (!!!), and he answers, “Believe. Larry learns to believe in magic, fairies, and himself.”
Then again, the film’s green light probably had more to do with the tights. “I tell people in the street, and it always gets a laugh,” Blomquist adds. “He rocks the tutu proudly. He runs around here in his tutu and wings, and he takes pictures with people.
“Every movie you do has its challenges…[20th Century Fox] hung onto the fairy costumes and the wings from the first movie, so they just shipped them to us, and that’s done.”
Of the film, I can only say this. Those who appreciate Larry the Cable Guy’s schtick will certainly enjoy Tooth Fairy 2. I do not put myself into that category, thus I have no plans to see it. If you do, go with God.
I’m no seasoned junketeer but the few I’ve joined (including John Travolta’s unforgettable sci-fi vehicle, Battlefield Earth) were challenging.
You are ostensibly an impartial journalist, but you are being lightly seduced by a group of people who will find financial and professional benefit in making sure you are happy, entertained, even flattered. It’s a tricky dance, made all the more difficult when you consider the many professionals who happily embrace the miniscule perks as though all of life is an endless gladhanding celebration of whatever is immediately before them. “Free dinner? Sure! Let me just put my Jack and Jill notepad away in my Vampire Diaries backpack. Is my Couples Retreat T-shirt dressy enough?”
But I quickly realize that this junket isn’t about journalism; it’s about experiences, shared immediately through social media and covered later on blogs. Myself and my peers have not been assembled to delve into the meaty production of Tooth Fairy 2 and emerge with a profile that does the project and its star justice. We’re there to photograph pigs, laugh at Larry’s one-liners, and immediately register the happenings on Twitter and Facebook and what-have-you. Later our photos and videos will decorate posts about how wonderful the trip was, from the complimentary hotel stay to the dinner at Emeril’s restaurant.
I don’t know if there’s some strict moral code that your garden variety blogger obeys. If you’re blogging for Time magazine or some large conglomerate of websites run out of New York offices, I’m sure there are rules. But for moms who started writing and then started getting read, and then started getting invited to junkets for direct-to-video films starring redneck comedians? Who knows.
Should there be rules? These were all smart, funny, talented women, based on the few hours I spent among them. I can’t speak for them but I’d guess they didn’t seek out blogging as an easy means to a career, at least not primarily. They sought out blogging as a way to connect with other moms and people that wanted to share their experiences. If that led them to free trips in exchange for just doing what they’ve always done, then man, good on them.
“Not all bloggers want to be journalists,” internet pundit Jeff Jarvis has written. “The Pew [Internet and American Life Project] recently did a survey and found that 33 percent of bloggers think they’re doing anything related to journalism. The rest are just people talking, and that’s how I define blogs: Blogs are people talking.”
Larry the Cable Guy’s real identity is Dan Whitney, and When he does appear, Whitney is just about as nice and self-effacing a guy as you can imagine. If it’s all some kind of elaborate charade to maintain his working-class image while he treats himself to champagne wishes and caviar dreams, he’s incredibly good at it. I suspect that he is who he is.
I get the impression that Dan is a man who likes to maintain his creature comforts. Filmmaking becomes a half-hour commute, like any other job; his massive tour bus, which is parked close by, fits his whole family. He talks about popping out to LA and NY for a quick promo tour to hype his History Channel show Only In America, and leaving the garbage cans out on his way to the airport, and being home in time to roll them back to the garage again.
Whitney visits us two or three separate times over the course of the day, spending 10-15 minutes each time answering questions before being called back to the set. About half of his time with us is given over to taking photos and signing autographs with the assembled bloggerati.
It’s a moment of truth for me. As a “journalist,” stumping for autographs and photos is Hollywood Foreign Press Association territory. It could create the impression that the photo will cloud my judgement as I assemble my “coverage.”
You’ve seen the photo above, so you know where my ethics went. Except it didn’t feel like ethics; it felt like having an experience presented to me, without irony or attempt to examine. It felt like I wanted a picture with a really nice, really famous guy and so I asked and he let me.
Which gets to the befuddling part of all this: Confronting the unadorned, uncomplicated reality of making Tooth Fairy 2 felt immediately at odds with my preconcieved notions. I had envisioned all these potential opportunities for snarky commentary, for pithy bon mots that would demolish the idiocy of this project while making me out to be the smartest dad on the web. But it’s hard to summon the proper level of skepticism when you meet people like Dan Whitney, or Crusher’s trainer, or the production coordinator whose name I missed but who was super nice to chat with and who I swear I’ve seen at the supermarket at least two times since.
I went in prepared to eviscerate a Hollywood disaster and instead found real people working at real jobs trying to do their best. And even if I think their best adds up to one hell of a shit sandwich, who am I to judge what they choose to do, and how they choose to do it? Does my sardonic repartee make any kind of difference to a woman who dreamed of training pigs for the silver screen, and realized that dream?
I’m sure that by the standards of most denizens of the internet, and certainly by the standards of most of the people I spend time with on the internet, Tooth Fairy 2 is what we might call “a giant bag of fail.” But it sure wasn’t to anyone working there that day, these nice normal people who get paid to do a job, and instead of that job involving a desk and a phone and bullshit, that job involves making movies. Whether the movie is Tooth Fairy 2 or Goodfellas is irrelevant. They’re not paid to make good movies…well, okay, maybe some of them are, and maybe that’s who we can blame for all the awful stuff that’s on TV every day that my kids can watch, the deep abyss of childrens’ entertainment where parents (myself included) gain twenty minutes of silence in exchange for just a little piece of soul.
But you know what, dear Brutus? The fault doesn’t lie in Larry the Cable Guy, but in ourselves. We’ve got the remote control and we’ve got the wallet. And until my kids are old enough to shatter their piggy banks and ride their bikes down to the Virtual Reality Center and download Tooth Fairy 6 Starring Justin Bieber-Bot 5000 directly into their brain pans, I have a say in what they consume.
Most of all, that’s what makes it hard to mock Tooth Fairy 2, or at least, to mock all the perfectly normal people doing somewhat unusual jobs in the service of unmitigated dreck. When I rent Tooth Fairy 2, I’m part of the problem. And when I don’t, what I say doesn’t matter.
So thanks to whoever paid for my lunch at Universal, and I’m really sorry I had to bail on the tour of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, cause that looks rad. I’m sorry, internet, that I can’t be cruel enough to justify my time spent glad-handing Larry the Cable Guy. As usual, I fail.
Crusher the pig, though? He’s living the dream.