Nick Hornbys wonderful 1992 nonfiction book, Fever Pitch, 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 mans 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 Hornbys words seemed to be printed on Mylar.
Now Fever Pitch is 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 Arsenals 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 hasnt missed a home game or (coincidentally?) had a long-term relationship in more than a decade. As Fever Pitch begins, in the fall of 2003, Bens 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 and Green Monster?
No matter Hornbys own involvement in bringing Fever Pitch to the screen hes credited as an executive producer the film ranks among the most specious acts of literary adaptation since Troy claimed to have something to do with The Iliad. And that high infidelity may well be the least of the movies problems. Even on its own terms, Fever Pitch strikes out. Despite its setting, the film clearly isnt the work of real sports fans; it lacks the fundamental love of the game any game that graces Ron Sheltons sports pictures. And the more Fever Pitch strives to manufacture Bens baseball mania, through bits of costume and set design exhumed from the studio prop warehouse, the more hollow it seems. It doesnt feel Bens mad enthusiasm in its bones, and so neither do we a fatal flaw in a movie that offers baseball both as the main characters raison detre and his chief antagonist.
The actors dont 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 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 shes about as mature as a teenager playing dress-up in her moms 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, Theres Something About Mary and a couple of other movies they made before they turned all maudlin and PC on us (ShallowHal, 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 Soxs has a silver lining, Fever Pitchs is that Hornbys memoir was filmed once before, in 1997, by the British director David Evans, with Hornby himself doing the script. Evans Fever Pitch was 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 screens growing gallery of Hornby man-boys (a formidable bunch that also includes John Cusack in High Fidelity and 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 | 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 | Released by Fox | Citywide
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