Not all fun and games7/27/2016
All across the globe, in cities as diverse as Paris, Los Angeles, Sydney and Traverse City, Michigan, young, athletic men are being paid thousands of dollars to tickle one another on video. The people behind the videos — a shadowy organization called Jane O’Brien Media — are funding these global “tickle cells” to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, in support of a sport it calls “competitive endurance tickling.” The “athletes” are all college age, handsome young men and are compensated handsomely for their time. But when they decide to stop being part of the videos, Jane O’Brien Media does their level best to ruin their lives: posting their videos to social media, contacting their families, schools and employers, and harassing them endlessly, sometimes for years. And nobody — not even the lawyers and filmmakers working for her — know who Jane O’Brien is.
Everything in the above paragraph is absolutely, 100 percent true. “Tickled,” the new documentary from Magnolia Pictures and HBO Films, follows Kiwi journalist David Farrier as he attempts to get to the who and why of Jane O’Brien Media, competitive endurance tickling, and where all the money is coming from.
Farrier is best known in his native New Zealand for offbeat, quirky profiles on strange and unusual people. From a New Zealand woman known for raising several donkeys in her suburban home, to costumed death metal acts, Farrier’s stories are usually light-hearted takes on odd stories. However, when he reached out to Jane O’Brien Media to inquire about a competitive endurance-tickling story, he was rebuffed with a hostile email that called Farrier out for his homosexuality. And another. And another. With his curiosity piqued by the seeming overreaction, he started digging a little deeper into the company and was met with cease and desist letters and threats of legal action, both in the U.S. and his native New Zealand.
As “Tickled” progresses, Farrier and his friend Dylan Reeve travel to the States, in search of a person behind the Jane O’Brien name. Along the way, the pair are rebuffed by Jane O’Brien Media employees, subjected to an increasing barrage of legal threats, and hounded by private investigators. But as the pair continues its digging, they begin to uncover a trend of intimidation, fraud, identity theft and larceny that goes back nearly 25 years.
Each step the pair takes through the film leads them deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole that is at times absurdly hilarious to watch. As the film progresses, and the story starts to turn more sinister, it starts to become clear that “Tickled” is never quite going to deliver the payoff that viewers want. As the people behind Jane O’Brien Media are unmasked, and the final twists are revealed — the last one is an amazing, hilarious doozy — it all winds up being for naught, as Farrier and his film producers run out of time and money to pursue the story any further, leaving some of the most shocking insights frustratingly unresolved.
Down at its core, “Tickled” is a fascinating story. As we meet young men across the country and witness their stories about receiving free trips, cars and thousands of dollars in cash, all for videos that nobody is supposed to see, it feels like bad fiction. It is the constant reminder that every moment is true that brings you back into the moment and makes “Tickled” so engrossing. But Farrier is clearly out of his depth as the facts get darker and the story becomes more involved, and he leaves a lot of the potential follow-up on the table. Much like actual tickling, “Tickled” is a lot of fun for a while, but ultimately leaves you wondering if it was worth it. CV
Starring: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve