3 stars (out of 4)
The gall of Peter and Bobby Farrelly. To think that a romantic comedy might work absent a sleazy wager (guy wins bet for taking village wallflower to prom, only to fall in love) or maddening miscommunication (girl sees boyfriend lunching with leggy lady, dumps him, only to realize later that Legs is his sister) takes a lot of chutzpah.
Hypothetically, the brothers Farrellythey of Cameron Diaz's stiff bangs ("There's Something about Mary") and Gwyneth Paltrow's padded behind ("Shallow Hal")would not be anyone's first choice to direct "Fever Pitch," a sweet, faux pas-free, Red Sox-adoring love story based on Nick Hornby's memoir of the same name (though not of the same sport: Hornby's a rabid soccer fan). But with a romantic and comic touch not often applied to romantic comedygo figureand a fan's exuberance for America's pastime, Mrs. Farrelly's boys have got themselves a natural and heartfelt screen romance, one that develops over time and without the aid of Peter Gabriel."Fever Pitch" opens in 1980 Boston with a warning: Be careful, kidthey'll break your heart. The line, spoken by a professional Red Sox fan to his young nephew Ben on the ride home from Ben's first Fenway experience, comes too late. Wide-eyed and pint-sized, Ben fell in love with the team at the top of the first.
Flash forward to 2004, off-season. Some things have changed (Ben, played by Jimmy Fallon, is now a high school math teacher), others have not (the Red Sox are still plagued by the Curse, thoughplease don't read if you TiVo'd game four of last year's World Series and still haven't watched itnot for long). Tasked with shaping young minds, Ben takes his advanced students to meet Lindsey Meeks (Drew Barrymore), a mathlete cum business consultant whose charm and wit are matched only by her adorable love of algebra.
There's an initial sparknot an avalanche of passion, a sparkand eventually the two make a date. One date turns to two and then three and soon a relationship blooms in Boston, with all the uncertainty and awkwardness a new couple can manage.
"Anything I'd say about you would be an understatement," Ben tells Lindsey, in a moment of bare affectionthe kind that makes those of us in the cocooning stage of a relationship, commonly referred to as marriage, bitterly nostalgic. Fallon, toned-down and twitch-free, and Barrymore, as offbeat a beauty as ever, are absolutely charming in these sentimental moments, benefiting from Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel's subtle script (another in the screenwriting team's long line of successful comedies-of-substance, including one of my favorites, "Parenthood").
But don't get too comfortable. It wouldn't be a proper Hornby adaptation without Peter Pan personified. From Hugh Grant's trust-funder in "About a Boy" to John Cusack's mix tape-maniac in "High Fidelity," Hornby's leading men consistently suffer from the flying man-child's notorious syndrome. Ben is no different, with reversion rearing its immature head every spring.
See, Ben inherited his uncle's season ticketstwo seats right behind the dugoutand his rites of spring annually include a wacky ticket-dividing ceremony with his Yankee-game coveting pals, an annual trip down to Florida for spring training and a breakup. Ben has never managed to keep a girlfriend through baseball season. And as the birds start chirping, he must reveal himself to Lindsey.
"I," he says with a mix of trepidation and pride, "am a Red Sox fan." This much she knew, what with Ben still sleeping on Sox pillow cases and keeping his phone cradled in a plastic mitt. The magnitude of Ben's dedication is at first endearing, even romantic.
The Farrellys' best work comes now. It's early in the season, there's still an air of hope at Fenway and Lindsey has become Ben's ultimate game day pal, leaving work early to meet him at the park, neglecting her own career for Curt Schilling's and subsisting on a diet of hot dogs and peanuts.
The Red Sox organization granted the Farrellys 10 days to shoot at Fenway, five of which were game days, and the energy of the park and fans is palpable as Ben and Lindsey toss back beers with Ben's summer family and sing "Sweet Caroline" at the top of their lungs, bobbing along with the crowd. I'm not sure why this all works so wellmaybe it's because Red Sox fever was real or because sports has a way of embracing cliches, making them not just digestible, but euphoric.
But as summer turns to fall, Lindsey's backside takes a backseat to Johnny Damon's, and as much as she doesn't want to be That Girl, that girl is jealous. Some non-sports cliches unfoldparticularly grating is the presence of a handsome new guy at Lindsey's office and a late periodand Ben's true passion threatens to overwhelm his true love.
I won't go any further into Ben and Lindsey's rocky road, but the film's other romance is fair game. Ganz and Mandel's original script had the Red Sox dropping out of the pennant racea safe bet for any student of baseball history. Rewrites came, of course, with Boston's stunning comeback against their Bronx rivals and curse-breaking sweep of the World Series.
Watching that ultimate victory's post-game celebration on TV last fall, many of you might have asked, "What the heck are Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon doing on the field?" Technically, they were filming the closing scene of "Fever Pitch"acting as Ben and Lindsey. But on screen it's quite clear that those lunatics jumping and flailing just feet from Johnny and Curt are Drew and Jimmy, Red Sox fans.
Only in the movies.
Directed by Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly; written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; based on the book by Nick Hornby; photographed by Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Alan Baumgarten; production designed by Maher Ahmad; music by Craig Armstrong; produced by Alan Greenspan, Amanda Posey, Gil Netter, Nancy Juvonen, Drew Barrymore and Bradley Thomas. A Fox 2000 Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:38. MPAA rating: PG-13 (crude and sexual humor, and some sensuality). Lindsey - Drew Barrymore
Ben - Jimmy Fallon
Molly - Ione Skye
Kevin - Willie Garson