Fever Pitch

(2005) ** 1/2 Pg-13
101 min. 20th Century Fox. Directors: Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly. Cast: Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon, Jason Spevack, Jack Kehler, Scott H. Severance.

Fever Pitch is undeniably a special movie, but arguably more by happenstance than design. If the Boston Red Sox were once subject to the "Curse of the Bambino" (legendary misfortune following the departure of Babe Ruth), Fever Pitch benefits from the "Blessing of the Sox." Directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly infamously rushed to reshoot the ending of their romantic comedy—set in the throes of Red Sox fandom—when the Sox overcame the curse and took the 2004 World Series Championship. History lends Fever Pitch (much needed) instant movie magic.

Nick Hornby's memoir Fever Pitch tells the story of his own obsession with Arsenal, the beloved English club football (soccer) team; not even relationships with women could compare to his predominant pastime. With a relatively faithful film adaptation already under his belt (for that 1997 British film, starring Colin Firth, Hornby wrote the script himself), the writer saw fit to allow Hollywood free reign in making its own version. So baseball replaces football, and the Red Sox stand in for Arsenal. The sport transfusion is smooth, and why shouldn't it be? Obsession is obsession, in any arena.

The film's boilerplate screenplay (by A League of Their Own scribes Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel) opens with the conversion of Ben Wrightman, at age 6, into what the film's Everyfan narrator calls "one of God's most pathetic creatures: a Red Sox fan." The boy's epiphany comes with a warning no six-year-old would heed ("Careful, kid—they'll break your heart"), so twenty-three years later, man-boy Ben (Jimmy Fallon) refuses to let hope die, religiously taking advantage of the season ticket subscription he inherited from his uncle. A ninth-grade geometry teacher, Ben shares his dream with an adopted family of friends and neighbors who share his primo vantage point near the Sox dugout.

Ben's comfortable routine never sits well with girlfriends, who fail to adjust to his unwavering seasonal devotion to spring training, every home game, and—Bambino willing—playoff season. When he strikes up a relationship with ambitious business consultant Lindsey Meeks (Drew Barrymore), he hesitates to explain the depth of his obsession. Confessing that it goes beyond the decor of his apartment (which Lindsey jokingly calls a Bosox "gift shop"), Ben invites his girlfriend into his world, beginning with a coveted Opening Day ticket.

At first, Lindsey is "cool" about it, and even when the arrangement threatens to become maddening, she sees the opportunity for a "modern" arrangement: during the summer, she can remain driven at work without Ben feeling neglected. Pushes inevitably come to shoves, with Ben's intractable game schedule giving no quarter to Lindsey's desire to accept the social invitations of friends and family. Lindsey's about to turn "20-10," and the path of her relationship with Ben leads her to serious soul-searching. Is this the sort of relationship she can handle for the rest of her life? Worse, is she only the mistress warming his bed while he spends the better part of his waking hours with his true love?

Understatement and thematic depth have never been the calling cards of the Farrelly Brothers. Drew Barrymore gives a typically warm, funny, and even classy performance that outshines her starchy dialogue, and Fallon's role fits him like a glove (which makes his somewhat pallid performance peek out like a sore thumb). In Farrelly tradition, the supporting players (like Jack Kehler as narrator/sponge salesman Al Waterman) swing wildly for the rafters, and when in comedic doubt, the brothers resort to low humor. Luckily, these guys are virtuosos of slapstick and vomit, but everything about the Farrelly style is at odds with the slice-of-life authenticity that characterizes Hornby's story.

The resulting laughs are both wan and few and far between. Fever Pitch remains appealing on two scores: its light-footed navigation of the two-way street of romantic accomodation and its contagious expression of tunnel-vision fandom redeemed by communal worship. The New England-bred directors have written a love letter to Boston at its best, filled the margins with Sox celebrities (from Johnny Damon to Stephen King), and provided historical footnotes (references to "1918," Ted Williams, and the Yaz). The film opens with the appropriately ambivalent Boston tune "Dirty Water" (by the Standells) and ends with a Jonathan Richman salute to Fenway.

Even baseball neophytes will come to see the 2004 season through Ben's eyes, and the language of the romantic comedy's requisite grand gesture of love is universal. The Farrellys chase their Fenway Park climax with footage of Fallon and Barrymore on the field during 2004's championship game, a metaphoric reward for loving faith and devotion. Fever Pitch may be something short of miraculous, but perhaps it isn't how you play the game that matters after all, as long as you have a "winning" personality.

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