Like any good, curious journalist, New Zealand pop culture guru David Farrier was intrigued by an "endurance tickling" competition he stumbled upon online. A mysterious company was offering all-expenses-paid trips to L.A. to hyper-ticklish male athletes to film them in the throes of tickle-induced laughter. In Tickled, a kooky investigative documentary that hinges on the bizarre novelty of its subject matter, and one that, moreover, feels ripped from the pages of an alt-weekly, Farrier and his taciturn chum Dylan Reeve plumb the depths of this obscure and ultimately troubling rabbit hole. It opens Friday at the Capitol Theatre as part of the Capitol Selects series.
After some hostile social media correspondence from the company hosting the tickling competition, Jane O'Brien Media, Farrier decides he'd like to make a documentary on the subject. Jane O'Brien sends a trio of legal emissaries to New Zealand to bully Farrier and Reeve into backing down. The Trump-ish threat from Jane O'Brien is that any legal battle will be so costly and time-intensive that lives will be ruined in the trenches of the courts. Don't make the documentary, they are warned.
Sufficiently baited, the New Zealand documentarians begin to probe the subject in a more concerted way. They get the idea to turn the tables on this invisible bully with deep pockets. They fly to the United States to interview a former tickling subject who became a victim of Jane O'Brien's aggression when he declined to continue participating in the videos. They interview a former casting director who worked for one of Jane O'Brien's former alter-egos. They interview the Philadelphia journalist who wrote about the sensational case which revealed Jane O'Brien's true identity.
One of the most interesting segments takes place in Muskegon, Michigan, where Farrier and Reeve learn of a "tickling ring," allegedly one of many in the U.S., where Jane O'Brien cultivates future video talent in the depressing arenas of regional mixed-martial arts leagues. The accumulation of evidence and personal testimony paints a picture of an icky, cruel, power-drunk tyrant.
The documentarians are, throughout, as baffled as the viewing audience surely will be. "This shit exists?" you'll no doubt ask, more than once. Farrier's face, while watching a benign fetishist who runs another (more upstanding) tickle website, is one of confusion and almost pain. The weirdness of the subject matter, (i.e., a sadistic, global tickling empire) is without question the film's principal hook. And though the novelty of that subject matter fades, it remains just as bonkers at the end as it is at the beginning.
Whether or not the material warrants a 90-minute documentary film is a question worth asking. But for the eventual confrontation with the true Jane O'Brien — a necessary, though underwhelming scene — a few hidden-camera moments with the O'Brien legal reps, and snippets of the YouTube tickling clips, there's nothing particularly visual about the investigation of the case. The information unfolding is engrossing, but given the complexities of the characters' backgrounds, and the blustery jargon of the Jane O'Brien entity's legal threats, a print story might have been clearer and more comprehensive.
It's not like Farrier and Reeve's financial limitations in confronting the empire are all that compelling. Nor do the dead-end phone calls and subjects' frequent preference not to discuss the subject make for investigative thrills. The film amounts to the outing of a deeply perturbed bully. And while the outing is surely a good thing in some ways, it might leave you wishing the documentary had been more purely focused on the investigation, had tried to mount a legal case against this company and enjoin them to stop, instead of merely trying to annoy and embarrass its boss.