* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly
Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, from the book by Nick Hornby
With Jimmy Fallon, Drew Barrymore, Lenny Clarke, Jack Kehler, James B. Sikking, and Ione Skye
British author Nick Hornby has done very well by the movies–every novel he’s written has been optioned for the screen, with his latest, How to Be Good, currently in production. And considering all the great novels that have been spoiled on-screen, the movies have done right by him. High Fidelity (1995), in which a London record-store owner is forced to grow up, may have been transferred to Wicker Park by actor-producer-screenwriter John Cusack, but its steady voice-over, taken nearly verbatim from the book, provided plenty of Hornby’s reflections on love and pop fandom. About a Boy (1998), in which a London playboy is forced to grow up, gave Hugh Grant one of his best roles ever, and again a heavy reliance on voice-over allowed director-writers Chris and Paul Weitz to preserve Hornby’s voice, this time in the form of his thoughts on how trend-chasing shapes–and misshapes–our lives.
Fever Pitch, the latest feature from shock-comedy siblings Peter and Bobby Farrelly, is based on Hornby’s 1992 debut book, a diaristic nonfiction account of his lifelong obsession with English soccer. Hornby himself scripted a 1997 British adaptation featuring Colin Firth, which seems to have been the starting point for this passable romantic comedy, in which a maniacally devoted Boston Red Sox fan (Jimmy Fallon) is forced to grow up when he falls for an ambitious professional woman (Drew Barrymore). Barrymore is so effortlessly funny that the movie isn’t a complete loss, but it’s interesting only insofar as the Farrelly brothers’ patented brand of arrested development contrasts with Hornby’s.
The Farrellys announced their comic strategy with the title of their first feature, Dumb and Dumber (1994), and their gleeful vulgarity reached a pinnacle in their second, Kingpin (1996), when Randy Quaid mistakenly hooks a bull to a milking machine then drinks zestfully from a bucket of semen. They raised the raunch level of Hollywood comedies in the late 90s, but like Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker of Airplane! fame in the 80s, they also honored the gag-a-minute ethic of 30s comedy teams like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. There’s Something About Mary (1998) was generally embraced by critics, who gave the brothers credit for having grown up, at least a little bit, when they integrated a sentimental love story into their wild humor. More precisely, they had figured out how to attract women to their pictures, and the movie grossed $176 million, more than seven times as much as Kingpin.
However, their box office performance has eroded with recent projects, which took on themes like schizophrenia (Me, Myself & Irene), morbid obesity (Shallow Hal), and conjoined twins (Stuck on You). Now the brothers have returned with this unusually straight romance, their first project in years to be scripted without them. Screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel started out writing sitcoms like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and the dreaded Joanie Loves Chachi before moving to the big screen for innocuous crowd-pleasers like Parenthood and City Slickers. Aside from one priceless scene–in which Barrymore is knocked cold by a foul ball and Fallon is too distracted by the game to notice–Fever Pitch consistently avoids the over-the-top humor that have made the Farrellys so fascinating, whether they’re misfiring (Shallow Hal) or delivering in spades (Stuck on You).
Like many Farrelly characters Ben (Fallon) needs to grow up: his bedroom looks like it belongs to an 11-year-old, with Red Sox bedsheets and walls covered in team memorabilia. A middle school teacher, he’s still impetuous enough to throw a football to a student in the hall; when it hits a fellow teacher in the head, he nabs another student as the culprit and then lets him off later. During a field trip to a financial services firm he meets Lindsey (Barrymore), a go-getter who’s never found the right guy. Captivated by his sweetness and wit, she begins to have second thoughts about their romance when the extent of his obsession becomes evident. He begs off on meeting her parents so he can attend spring training in Florida (she and her father see him on ESPN, jumping around like an idiot), and he turns down a romantic weekend in Paris because it conflicts with a game. The one night he manages to tear himself away from Fenway Park to spend time alone with her, the Sox pull off a late-inning rally in his absence, and he reacts childishly, sending their relationship into a tailspin.
Ben is a pretty good sketch of the narrator in Fever Pitch, whose devotion to the Arsenal team, dating back to his parents’ divorce in the late 60s, is so complete that friends and family have learned to live with it. “If I were wheelchair bound, nobody close to me would organize anything in a top-floor flat,” he points out, “so why would they plan anything for a winter Sunday afternoon?” Even the book is structured around the games, its short segments recalling memorable matches from Hornby’s 24 years following the club. If you’re not interested in English soccer, reading Fever Pitch is a little like plowing through a treatise on someone’s stamp collection, but it does lay bare the psychology of the compulsive sports fan. “The joy we feel,” Hornby explains, “is not a celebration of others’ good fortune, but a celebration of our own; and when there is a disastrous defeat the sorrow that engulfs us is, in effect, self-pity, and anyone who wishes to understand how football is consumed must realize this above all things.”
“Consumed” is a word that turns up again and again in the book, which is at its funniest and most insightful when it portrays sports fandom in the cold, unsentimental terms of drug addiction: like a junkie, the football fan is most concerned with meeting his own selfish needs. That lack of sentiment is the book’s saving grace, especially when Hornby considers the soccer violence
that culminated in the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster. Ninety-six people were killed, but two weeks later he’s back at an Arsenal match, appalled by what happened but ready for more.
“I went to the Arsenal-Norwich game, and loved it, for the same reasons I had watched the Liverpool-Juventus final after the Heysel disaster, and for the same reasons that football hasn’t really changed that much in over a hundred years: because the passions the game induces consume everything, including tact and common sense.”
Ganz and Mandel don’t have to deal with anything as sobering as a large-scale human disaster at Fenway Park; in the Americanized Fever Pitch the key historical incident is Boston’s surprise victory in last year’s World Series, which reversed an 86-year curse. Consistent with that happy milestone, the movie settles on a blandly sunny view of the hero’s obsession, one that favors community over consumption. Ben has held onto his father’s season tickets for decades, and he’s part of a little clique of sitcom-wacky Red Sox fans who attend every game; the movie overtly contrasts them with Lindsey’s friends, who are all rich, self-absorbed yuppies. The movie’s sentiment is nothing new for the Farrelly brothers, but its complacency certainly is; I can’t help but think that scores of people being trampled at a sports event would be more up their twisted alley.