Published at: Oct. 15, 2008, 2:32 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Nick Hornby seems to be living a charmed life, artistically speaking. He’s had four films made from his novels to date. In 1997, there was the first FEVER PITCH, a wonderful little gem about an obsessed fan of the Arsenal Football Club that gave Colin Firth one of his first big roles. The film that introduced most American viewers to Hornby was 2000’s HIGH FIDELITY, an excellent romantic comedy starring John Cusack and Jack Black in the role that jump-started his movie career. 2002’s ABOUT A BOY was enormously charming, giving Hugh Grant one of the most tailor-made roles he’s ever had. Each of these films felt personal, like they could only be the products of these particular filmmakers, and that’s definitely the case again with this new American take on FEVER PITCH, a film that gives Pete and Bobby Farrelly some of the best material they’ve ever had to work with.
Hornby’s particular specialty seems to be writing about these man-boys who live with one foot in adulthood and one foot firmly rooted in the interests and obsessions of childhood. I don’t think it’s any secret to anyone who reads this site regularly that I indulge my inner twelve-year-old on a regular basis. Maybe not quite as fully as Harry “Pwesents” Knowles, but that is why he is and always will be Head Geek. I think it’s essential to what we do that we hold on to the things that make us happy and inspire us. Right now, looking around my house, I am surrounded by toys and posters and DVDs and other relics that connect me to my childhood, things that I enjoy in a way that it hard to sum up verbally.
That can be a real shock to the system for a “real” adult when they walk into this. I know. I’ve seen it happen. You should see the look on a repair guy’s face when he’s here, or the way some of the women I’ve dated have reacted in the past. That look is what this new version of FEVER PITCH is all about, and it’s incredibly potent material. In fact, I’ll go one step further and say this:
This is the best film the Farrelly Brothers have made since THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and it feels like a huge step forward for them as artists.
Working from a script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, they’ve somehow made a film that feels intensely personal. The Farrellys are New England guys, and they grew up going to Fenway Park. They’re lifelong Red Sox fans themselves. The sense of specific geography in this film is excellent, and I’d imagine anyone who shares a passion for the Red Sox is going to have to own this movie. It’s an honest film, with most of the humor rooted in real human behavior, but there are plenty of small moments of their trademark brand of skewed slapstick. It’s a pretty remarkable balancing act, and the result is that rarest of creatures, a romantic comedy where the comedy is just as important as the romance.
If there is any genre of mainstream films that gets largely ignored here at AICN, it’s the romantic comedy, and with good reason. Most of what the studios pump out and slap with that label is insulting, man-hating dreck, feeble-minded would-be female empowerment garbage like THE WEDDING DATE or HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN TEN DAYS. Even the best of the genre, like the work of Richard Curtis, can be hard to swallow because of the fantasy ideal that it peddles. What makes FEVER PITCH (and the other films adapted from Hornby’s work) so unusual is the way it finds the romance in reality. This isn’t a film about a woman being swept off her feet by the perfect man, and it’s not full of deceptions and lies all designed to trick somebody into feeling something. This is about two recognizable people who fall into something real, and because of that, I think it should resonate with male and female viewers alike.
The film opens with a brief scene that shows seven year old Ben (Jason Spevack) moving to Boston with his mother. He has a hard time adjusting to the city until his uncle (Lenny Clark) takes him to Fenway Park for an afternoon. Ben falls in love with all of it... the game, the players, the fans, the stadium, the history... and in that moment, the die is cast. Ben gets bit by the bug, bigtime. Wisely, though, the film doesn’t belabor the point. It’s a sweet scene, simply played, and then things flash forward about 23 years.
The next 20 minutes or so simply sets up who our main characters are, and works to bring the adult Ben (Jimmy Fallon) together with Lindsay (Drew Barrymore). He’s a school teacher and she’s a systems analyst. He brings an advanced math class to meet her at work as an example of someone who uses applied math in their daily job. There’s no big giant meet-cute moment here. Instead, their attraction is etched in a series of small, believable moments, escalating gradually until they suddenly realize that they’re a couple. It’s moved well past casual.
And that’s when Ben tells Lindsay about his love of baseball. And specifically, about his love of the Red Sox. I’m no baseball fan, but you don’t need to be to appreciate the film. What’s important is the passion Ben feels, the fervor of his fandom, and the Farrellys get all the details right. Ben and his friends have certain rituals they enjoy every year, starting with spring training in Florida. When Lindsay and her father spot Ben on ESPN with his buddies, her dad calls him an “asshole,” and he’s not wrong. Ben comes across as a total lunatic. Ben inherited season tickets at Fenway from his uncle, and the dividing of those tickets among his buddies is another ritual, complete with ball-busting and humiliation for entertainment. These things are hard-wired into these guys, and Ben knows there’s a good chance he’s going to lose Lindsay when he reveals all of this to her. After all, he’s lost every other girlfriend over it. Lindsay’s determined to be different, though. She’s charmed by Ben’s boyish enthusiasm, by the way he seems connected to something. She sees all the passion he can muster, and she wants to be a part of it.
And that’s the central quandary of the film. How does someone who has spent their whole life partaking in a fanatical passion for something make room in their life for another person? Do you have to give something up? Does the other person have to share that passion? Can they? There’s no villain in this film, no artificial dilemma or THREE’S COMPANY-style misunderstanding that drives the couple apart conveniently at the act three bump. Instead, Ben and Lindsay have to wrestle with the real issues that I’ve faced and that I’ve seen my friends face as they try to build a life together. There are moments in here that I swear I’ve gone through, word for word, with my own wife. It’s surprising how real it all feels.
The supporting cast is used to flesh out Ben and Lindsay’s lives and to ground them. All of the people who sit in the seats around Ben at Fenway, his “summer family,” are perfectly cast, as are his friends. I particularly liked seeing the Farrellys use Willie Garson again. He’s always good in their films, and he has some of the most overt comedy moments here, good stuff that contributes some of the best tangential laughs in the film. Barrymore’s friends are probably the least interesting part of the film (although it was nice to see a still smokin’ Ione Skye show up in something), and I could live without the spin clas scene. It’s one of the few moments that feels like a routine romantic comedy. There are other scenes that start off familiar, like a GREAT GATSBY-themed birthday party, but the Farrellys use details like a drunken birthday toast to keep it honest and funny without letting sentiment ruin everything.
I actually saw TAXI yesterday morning, just before John Robie called to invite me to see FEVER PITCH, so I walked into the screening ready to hate Jimmy Fallon in this film. I don’t get him. I think he’s painfully unfunny on SNL, and TAXI was like being kicked in the balls by my DVD player for two hours. Somehow, though, the Farrellys managed to strip away all of Fallon’s bad habits here and they got a real performance out of him. Maybe it’s appropriate that he’s not the best-looking guy and he’s not suave and hilarious all the time. Same thing with Barrymore. She’s normal, approachable, and that’s a big part of her appeal. This isn’t wish-fulfillment fantasyland bullshit. I think most people will be able to see themselves onscreen while watching these two struggle to make things work.
It’s always risky when you’re the first person to review something. You don’t have the comfort of having the critical herd to tell you what to think. There are times when I go out on a limb for a film and find myself alone. I don’t think that’ll be the case this time, though. If Fox 2000 just releases the cut I saw last night, then I’m confident that the critical community and the mainstream audience both will warmly embrace the film. The fact that the Red Sox actually won the World Series while this was filming gave the Farrellys a Hollywood ending that they never would have tried for otherwise. It gives the film an extra added bit of magic.
Even without that, FEVER PITCH succeeds, but taken as a whole, this film is just plain out of the park.
I’ve got a vacation coming up next week to celebrate some phenomenal professional news I’ll be announcing at the end of March, but before I go, I’ll be back with my review of Neil Gaiman’s MIRRORMASK and one more DVD column. Until then...