THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The author Nick Hornby has written terrific books such as “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity.” Both of those titles were turned into successful movies. One of Hornby’s lesser-known works (in the U.S. at least) is “Fever Pitch,” the story of a man whose soccer obsession threatens his romantic life. It too was adapted for the big screen, in 1997, with Colin Firth in the lead role. The picture really didn’t get much of a release here in the States, although it pops up occasionally on the Independent Film Channel. Directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary) now go behind the camera for an Americanized version of the story. Fever Pitch switches the sport from soccer to – what else? – baseball.

Drew Barrymore stars as Lindsey Meeks, a 30-year old woman whose career drive has made it hard to sustain a relationship. One day she meets Ben (Jimmy Fallon), a kindly school teacher. He is charming and unassuming – the exact opposite of the upwardly mobile men she usually dates. Lindsey’s friends encourage her to date Ben, figuring that she might have more luck with a different kind of guy. She eventually decides to take a chance on him.

During the winter months, their relationship is almost too good to be true. Lindsey’s friend Robin (KaDee Strickland) figures there must be a skeleton somewhere in Ben’s closet. Come spring, Lindsey finds out what that skeleton is: Ben is obsessed with the hometown baseball team, the Boston Red Sox. Almost every item in his apartment is adorned with the Red Sox logo, from his bed sheets to his shower curtain. He has a series of bizarre sports rituals, especially when it comes to divvying up his season tickets among friends. He hasn’t missed a game since he was eleven years old and doesn’t intend to start now, even if that means skipping out on a trip to Paris with Lindsey.

At first, Lindsey finds the obsession cute and even convenient. She can devote some time to snagging the big promotion she’s had her eye on without feeling like she’s neglecting Ben. She can even attend a few games with him. After a few months, though, Ben’s romance with baseball threatens to sour their relationship. He’s irritable when the team doesn’t do well, and he refuses to miss a single game, even for something that’s important to her. There’s no doubt that Ben loves Lindsey, but does he love the Sox more?

Fever Pitch knows what it’s like to be a devoted fan. It also knows how frustrating it can be to love a devoted fan. The screenplay – by City Slickers writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel – does a good job of looking at the issue from both sides. When confronted about his lifelong obsession with the team, Ben asks Lindsey, “Do you still care about anything you cared about 23 years ago?” It’s a poignant question, as the Red Sox have been a part of Ben’s life since he was eleven, and they remind him of the loving uncle who took him in as a boy. On the other hand, Lindsey is correct in pointing out that she has to look at the long-term picture. Will he miss out on important life activities because he’s at a ball game? Will they have to schedule the birth of their future children around when the Sox are playing? She realizes that his love for the team threatens to take him away from home at times when she needs him.

The Farrelly brothers have had a decade-long formula of making comedies that are outrageous, or gross, or both. However, each of their films (which also include Dumb and Dumber, Stuck on You and Shallow Hal) have had an underlying sweetness. For Fever Pitch, they reverse the formula, bringing the sweetness front and center and pushing the outrageousness into the background. This seems like a natural progression for them. A story such as this requires genuine – not manufactured – emotion, and the Farrellys have always demonstrated real heart in their films.

They also have a knack for casting, which pays off here. Drew Barrymore once again proves that, despite being a major star, she’s a seriously underrated actress. I’ve always liked the way Barrymore doesn’t so much play a character as get under the character’s skin. That leads to performances that feel very authentic. As Lindsey, the actress brings a lot of different emotions, from the joy of finding new love to the painful realization that she’s always be competing with the other love of her man’s life. I suspect a lot of sports widows will identify with Barrymore’s performance.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t like Jimmy Fallon. I’ve always found him incessantly annoying. During his stint on “Saturday Night Live,” he seemed unable to get through a single sketch without cracking himself up. (In other words, Jimmy Fallon seemed to think that Jimmy Fallon was pretty darn funny.) Fever Pitch could start to turn me around on the guy, though. Fallon is well cast as Ben. His innate sense of man-boy goofiness is a perfect match for the character. It’s not a stretch to buy the actor as a clueless, sports-obsessed doofus. Even more impressive is that Fallon convinces us that Ben might be ready for something more. This being a romantic comedy, I don’t suppose it gives anything away to say that Ben ultimately comes to his senses in regards to Lindsey. Fallon does a nice job of showing us how the character learns to reprioritize his life.

The original version of the Fever Pitch script relied on “the Curse of the Bambino.” During filming – which took place during last year’s season – the Red Sox did the remarkable by finally winning the World Series after an 86-year losing streak. The filmmakers had to scramble to devise a new ending. What they came up with works perfectly. You walk out of the theater on a high note. Fever Pitch is very sweet and very funny, but what truly makes it special is that it understands some fundamental things about men and women. Guys get obsessed with things: sports, cars, movies, whatever. Women don’t always understand it, but the right woman can help a guy put his obsession in the proper perspective and show him joys greater than those he’s ever thought possible. And that, my friends, is true love.

( out of four)

Fever Pitch is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, and some sensuality. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.

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