There’s a scene in “Fever Pitch” in which Ben and Lindsey attend a “Great Gatsby” party, dressed up in full Jazz Age costumes and ready to cut a rug to the sort of largeish jazz band that shows up to gigs in a schoolbus. Lindsey (Drew Barrymore) enjoys herself with Ben (Jimmy Fallon) all the more because he has given up a Red Sox game to attend the party. Not just any Sox game, either: a battle against the Yankees with penant implications. We see a montage of the two lovers dancing to the rousing jazz, but suddenly, right in the middle of these shots, Lindsay and Jimmy are grooving to The Human League’s “(Keep Feeling) Fascination”. Inexplicably, a moment later, the soundtrack cuts back to the jazz. Are we to deduce that the house played cheesy synth pop during a band break? Was this a continuity error on the part of the filmmakers? It didn’t matter. I just thought: bless Drew Barrymore and her irrepressible Eighties fixation. She really is a sweetheart.
Only paragraph two, I know, but such is the beginning and the end of my criticism of “Fever Pitch”. This movie is disarming in a way of which the U.N. can only dream. A run of the mill romantic comedy, loosely based on Nick Hornby’s novel, “Fever Pitch” is just this side of cloying and all the stronger for it. Barrymore is an appealing Lindsay, uber-executive and custodian of the world’s most prominent female chin. She has in flesh and bone what Mickey Rourke needed two hours in a prosthetic makeup lab to recreate in “Sin City”—an audacious, bulbous protuberence that has become every bit as iconic as Julia Roberts’ lips, Jennifer Aniston’s hair, or Jennifer Lopez’ hindquarters.
Barrymore has never been more likably adult than she is here. Maybe it’s a nickel’s worth of range to spend, but with Lindsay she demonstrates a character whose relative complexity is a far cry from the cartoonish, karate-chopping nitwit of the “Charlie’s Angels” movies. Smooth, confident, and believably vulnerable, Barrymore is radiant in this movie. Not like a 2000-watt spotlight, perhaps, but something smaller, more compact, more comforting—a Smurfs night-lite, maybe.
Equally disarming is Jimmy Fallon. He’s great in this movie as the “man-boy” Ben, but don’t blink. Like some rare flower that blooms for an hour and then dies, Fallon, who has clearly peaked in this movie, may never be heard from again. It goes without saying that Fallon, a Bostonian, more than sells the character of a fanatical Sox fan. Actually, the reason his performance works so well is that he doesn’t have to sell it at all. When the camera finally visits his Red Sox memoribilia-laden apartment, it’s clear that Fallon could easily have slipped into mindless caricature. The apartment doesn’t resemble a sports fan’s home as much as it does a serial killer’s. The reveals are done in the manner of “The Silence of The Lambs” or “Seven”, where the domicile of the maniac is covered with drawings, newspaper clippings, photos, and dozens of other everyday objects that take on a sinister quality when displayed in such monomaniacal fashion. Wisely, Fallon lets Ben’s collection of knicknacks do the talking, opting to coast along with his easy, boyish charm. Ben’s obsession is as obvious as an eBay auction, so he leaves the tics and quirks aside in favor of a straighter performance. Welcome restraint. I mean, Yankees toilet paper—we get the idea.
Fallon also pulled off one of the more remarkable scenes ever filmed in a romantic comedy, for which he has earned my lasting respect. When he visits Lindsay to get back together with her, he makes his sales pitch as forcefully as he can. But she’s not biting. And it doesn’t help that the third Wilson brother answered the door, either (one shudders to think what sort of facial features Barrymore/Wilson offspring would be burdened with). Rejected, Fallon staggers back to the stairs—and starts crying. What, no pithy comebacks? No angry, face-saving volley of wounded wit? Fie, ironic vulnerability! A man’s heart breaks, and he cries. Fifty romantic comedies come out a year and none plays such a scene as realistically or as effectively. It’s not that one wishes to shed tears of sympathy for Ben, but rather that a scene like that either blows up the movie’s mood or hits it out of the park. Fallon homers. That and a few other scenes of the same sort of dramatic balance mark “Fever Pitch” as an adult comedy. Watch any Adam Sandler comedy to see how it’s done incorrectly.
As for the baseball content, even a skimming familiarity with the Red Sox and their ancient woes is enough to appreciate the film. The script, by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, gives more than a taste of Red Sox Nation, but it’s never overwhelming, and almost never cute. There are a few Johnny Damon jokes, for example, but no silly moments where Damon takes part in the story with a wooden line-reading or gratuitous close-up. The focus, as it should be, is on the fans and their relationship to the team. The group of Sox fanatics in Ben’s seating area are sketched with humor and warmth, and the camaraderie seems very much as it really is with sports fans.
Ganz and Mandel, two veterans, are sophisticated with their jokes, as well. A lesser script would have followed Fallon down to Spring Training to revel in his sophomoric hijinks, a la “Old School”. The writers of “Fever Pitch” cleverly worked in a scene that is both funnier and more dramatically interesting: Lindsay is in the middle of explaining to her father why Jimmy couldn’t be with them that weekend just as an ESPN report comes on featuring Fallon going fan-boy berserk. In this way the story remains level-headed, sinking neither into the morass of testosterone-fueled sports movie clichés nor the sugary weightlessness of romantic comedies.
The kicker to all this is that the movie was directed by The Farrelly Brothers. On first blush one might naturally assume that this grown-up tale was left unspoiled because someone surreptitiously switched them to decaf, or that Hornby, an executive producer, made his calming hand felt, or perhaps that even the Farrelly Brothers kneel in quiet reverence before the Red Sox shrine. All that may be true, but any casual observer of “Dumb and Dumber” or “There’s Something About Mary” would know that the Farrelly Brothers have been heading in this direction all along. Peter Farrelly’s “Outside Providence” was an early indication that these slapstick artists had a less infantile side to their comic sensibilities.
In fact, they sunk “Shallow Hal” by giving themselves away with too much sunny affability, which serves them so well in the more conventional “Fever Pitch”. Barrymore is nothing if not the usual Farrelly heroine: cool enough to enjoy sports, feminine enough to be sexy, and patient enough to endure the leading man’s loopiness. Unfortunately, the Farrelly Brothers achieved great comic moments only in a few spots, such as the unforgettable sight of Barrymore streaking across Fenway. Otherwise their direction is listlessly generic. The brothers shine only amid unbridled lunacy, and with “Fever Pitch” they matched the subject matter to their baseball allegiance but not to their real cinematic talents. They’re on the right track with sports movies, though. Fingers crossed they get a call from Vince McMahon.