Sunday, April 10, 2005

REVIEW: Fever Pitch

Warning: Some spoilers herein.

Here in New England, this is primarily known as "that Red Sox movie," which means that it's doing spectacular business. Whether that will translate to the rest of the nation remains to be seen, but it can be surely said that the promise of a story set during and around the Sox curse-reversing 2004 season has snared a big chunk of Red Sox Nation's male populace into seeing a movie that they would likely otherwise have skipped: A rigidly-formulaic romantic "comedy" about a mismatched young couple making it work.

Which isn't to say that the film doesn't go out of it's way to give Sox fans what they could reasonably have expected: "I walk by that place all the time!!!!" location shooting, expository banter about curses, Bambinos and Buckner, player cameos, etc. The Dropkick Murphys are on the soundtrack, along with all the standard pop-tunes about Boston and it's eponymous team, the BoSox "font" is used for all the intertitles and (of course) a portion of the end credits roll over footage of the big World Series victory parade. If you're a Red Sox fan, this is what you're seeing "Fever Pitch" for, and the good news is you'll get it. The not-so-good news is that getting to these fan treats requires you to sift through one of the most stiflingly predictable rom-coms not featuring Ashton Kutcher in recent memory.

This is all a rough translation of a popular Nick Hornby (see also: "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy") book, directed by the Farelly Brothers. The British Hornby's book was about soccer, and the Sox are on hand here because someone (not without reason) determined that Red Sox Nation was the only adequate American doppleganger for European soccer hooligans. (I'd imagine Raiders fans came in a close second.) As you've heard by now, the central premise is that of a "love triangle" in which our young hero is torn between his lady and his team. Drew Barrymore (who's usually funny in these kinds of movies) is Lindsay the girlfriend, and Jimmy Fallon (who's almost never funny in any kind of movie. Or television show. Or comedy album) is Ben the conflicted fan.

Let it not be said that this is a bad premise, or even not a very good one, but the film cannot seem to muster the will to do a single truly original thing with it. It plays like a script written in the manner of Mad Libs, as though the Farelly's believed that the novelty of the Red Sox minutia was all they needed in the way of a new angle and just let the rest of the story play out by the numbers. It's a total formula movie, and since formulas become formulas for a reason this means that "Fever Pitch" isn't exactly awful or offensive... it's just sort of "there." It does, however, lack completely any semblance of ambition to be anything approaching memorable or meaningful.

This lack of desire to break formula becomes more and more clear as the film rolls on, and at about midpoint it begins to seriously hurt the characters: It becomes impossible to really care about Fallon or Barrymore's characters once it becomes apparent that they have no depth or purpose beyond doing exactly what they need to do to make the required scenes happen. Barrymore's character is, from scene to scene; understanding, irritating, silly, smart, insecure or over-confident, dependant ONLY on what the script requires her to do to provoke the plot-appropriate reaction from Fallon.

The film does her no favors, either, by going rather "soft" on it's hero's so-called "obsession." Yes, his home is so stocked with BoSox memorabilia that it looks, as she says, "like he lives in a gift shop," but as homes-of-fans go most of you have seen a lot worse in your actual lives. (Ever been in the garage of a hardcore Nascar devotee?) Ben's fandom, as the film's backstory endlessly informs us, is rooted more in the need for a surrogate family (his fan buddies, his fellow season ticket holders) than it is in any sort of "fanatic" trivium. Thus, when the film hits the obligatory "oh, Ben!" moments from Lindsay they don't really work.

For example: A scene where Lindsay thumbs through Ben's closet and finds a collection of team jerseys starts out as cute, but immediately sours when the contents actually serve to upset her. After she's already seen his bedroom/memorabilia-museum, what did she expect to find? It's a totally false beat, existing only because the formula called for a "speedbump" moment, and it only gets worse when she pronounces: "This isn't a man's closet!", declares him a "man-boy" and sighs that her sister's husband has a closet full of wonderful suits. Whereas the initial response reads as false, the name-calling followups simply feel cold and unreasonably mean. It also marks poor character structure, since in the very next scene she's not only "nice" again but also a willing participant in his fanboy eccentricities.

The "arc" to all this is supposed to be that Lindsay meets and falls for Ben during the winter, and thus is "hillariously" surprised by the "different guy" that pops up during the baseball season. The trouble is, "winter Ben" is presented as such a superhumanly above-and-beyond boyfriend that even the most extreme display of misplaced priorities that "summer Ben" can muster aren't really enough to make him even close to unlikable enough to justify the mandatory pre-happy-ending false-alarm breakup that innevitably ensues. The situation (Ben can't contain his displeasure upon learning he'd skipped "the best game ever played" to attend a prove-I'm-more-important-than-the-Sox-to-you date with Lindsay) is so contrived, and Lindsay's reaction to it so overblown-feeling that I just couldn't help but wonder if she had somehow missed the rest of her own movie.

But maybe I'm being too hard. The plain fact is, formula romantic comedy has it's audience and that audience will probably enjoy this. Enough of the jokes hit, theres a lot of fun classic rock music (a Farelly staple), I'm sure that a good number of so-called "sports widows" will find cause to nod to eachother in a "you said it, sistah!" manner in agreement with Lindsay's frequent exasperation and I'm equally sure that devoted Sox fans will enjoy the multiple scenes where Ben's colorful gallery of fellow-fans give Lindsay the Reader's Digest version of Red Sox mythology from The Curse to the proper pronunciation of Yastrzemski.

So yeah, here and there I smiled and laughed. But it's just so relentlessly predictable and lazy that I just can't fully reccomend it in good conscience. It's an average movie that seems less so because it never once tries to be above-average.

Bottom line for Sox fans: As Boston sports-comedies go, it's at least better than "Celtic Pride," but not good enough to be worth paying theater prices for unless you like formula romantic comedy at least a third as much as you like the Red Sox. Wait and rent it, and until then you can always just watch "Faith Rewarded" a few dozen more times, right?

Bottom line for everyone else: Just another romantic comedy, save for boasting some amusing trivium about Boston sports fandom in between the usual beats. This particular weekend, you're still better off with "Sahara."