Low Fidelity

The Farrellys strike out with Hornbys Fever Pitch

Nick Hornby's wonderful 1992 nonfiction book, FeverPitch, tied 24 years of memories to a series of English football matches, culminating in that empyrean moment in 1989 when Arsenal midfielder Michael Thomas scored an injury-time goal to win that beleaguered London club its first championship in 18 seasons. It was about the religion of sports fandom, about how football can eclipse all other meaningful relationships in a man's world and how a man can feel perfectly justified letting it do so. And it got it all so hilariously, mercilessly and terrifyingly right that even if you happened to root for Liverpool—or, perchance, believe that proper football is played for touchdowns, not goals—Hornby's words seemed to be printed on Mylar.

Now FeverPitchis a movie, directed by the Farrelly brothers and adapted by that old-reliable comedy team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (NightShift, Splash, City Slickers). The setting has been transposed to Boston, the sport of choice to baseball and the team in question to—who else?—the Boston Red Sox, whose 86-year "Curse of the Bambino" made Arsenal's two-decade losing streak look as diminutive as the right-field line at Candlestick Park. The possessor of the fatal fan attraction is now Ben Wrightman (Jimmy Fallon), a high school geometry teacher who hasn't missed a home game or (coincidentally?) had a long-term relationship in more than a decade. As FeverPitchbegins, in the fall of 2003, Ben's carefully ordered universe is ruptured by the intrusion of a beautiful businesswoman named Lindsey (Drew Barrymore), who first encounters Ben leading his students on an off-campus field trip and, as they start to date, gradually realizes the obsessive degree of his extracurricular activity. Will there be enough room in this relationship for man, woman andGreen Monster?

No matter Hornby's own involvement in bringing FeverPitchto the screen—he's credited as an executive producer—the film ranks among the most specious acts of literary adaptation since Troyclaimed to have something to do with The Iliad. And that high infidelity may well be the least of the movie's problems. Even on its own terms, FeverPitchstrikes out. Despite its setting, the film clearly isn't the work of real sports fans; it lacks the fundamental love of the game—any game—that graces Ron Shelton's sports pictures. And the more FeverPitchstrives to manufacture Ben's baseball mania, through bits of costume and set design exhumed from the studio prop warehouse, the more hollow it seems. It doesn't feel Ben's mad enthusiasm in its bones, and so neither do we—a fatal flaw in a movie that offers baseball both as the main character's raison d'etre and his chief antagonist.

The actors don't help much, either. With his perpetually untucked undershirts, tousled hair and husky-mumbly voice, Fallon tries to coast by on the reputation of cool irreverence he earned during his six seasons on Saturday Night Live, but he projects none of the sense of a vibrant inner character that Adam Sandler (who would have been perfect) does even in a subpar part. Barrymore, who also produced the film, is chipper and lovely to look at, though in what has been heralded by some as her first "grown-up" movie role, she's about as mature as a teenager playing dress-up in her mom's business suit, and her perky mannerisms quickly grow tiresome. (For the record, Barrymore was immeasurably more grown-up in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.) Neither she nor Fallon receives much direction by the Farrellys, who are at an utter loss working this far removed from the wanton slapstick of Kingpin, There's Something About Maryand a couple of other movies they made before they turned all maudlin and PC on us (Shallow Hal, Stuck on You). Which was still preferable to Fever Pitch, a romantic comedy so unfunny, charmless and hopelessly ordinary that Arthur Hiller might have signed his name to it.

If every cloud—even the Red Sox's—has a silver lining, Fever Pitch's is that Hornby's memoir was filmed once before, in 1997, by the British director David Evans, with Hornby himself doing the script. Evans' FeverPitchwas never properly released in this country—in the years preceding the success of Bend it Like Beckham, Hollywood rested assured that English football (or soccer, if you must) was anathema to American moviegoers. But it got right most of what the Farrellys get wrong, and is built around a brilliant performance by Colin Firth that may be the richest in the screen's growing gallery of Hornby man-boys (a formidable bunch that also includes John Cusack in HighFidelityand Hugh Grant in About a Boy). No doubt the whiff of a marketing opportunity will prompt cable broadcasters to begin running it again and video stores to replenish their supplies of the DVD. So stay home and watch it. Or, better yet, read the book.

FEVER PITCH WAS DIRECTED BY PETER FARRELLY AND BOBBY FARRELLY; WRITTEN BY LOWELL GANZ AND BABALOO MANDEL, BASED ON THE BOOK BY NICK HORNBY; PRODUCED BY AMANDA POSEY, ALAN GREENSPAN, GIL NETTER, DREW BARRYMORE, NANCY JUVONEN AND BRADLEY THOMAS. NOW PLAYING AT FOUR STAR CINEMA, GARDEN GROVE; GALAXY CINEMAS, ANAHEIM; AND KRIKORIAN, BUENA PARK.

 
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