The Boston Red Sox’s curse-breaking, World Series-winning 2004 season is the backdrop to a lightweight romantic comedy in “Fever Pitch,” the latest attempt by the directing team of Peter and Bobby Farrelly to move from the rowdy farces their names were synonymous with–“There’s Something About Mary,” “Dumb and Dumber,” and their ilk–to sweeter fare like “Me, Myself and Irene,” “Shallow Hal” and “Stuck on You.” It’s the tale of Ben Wrightman (Jimmy Fallon), a high school math teacher who’s also a fanatical Sox supporter, having inherited season tickets near the dugout from the uncle who introduced him to the game and become part of a little family of devoted fans that attend every possible game and cheer the team on, despite the many disappointments the team has inflicted on them over the years. In the winter off season, Ben meets (cutely, of course, when he takes some of his students to visit her office) Lindsey Meeks (Drew Barrymore), a driven business consultant with a math background. Though Ben’s hardly adept at the dating scene, he makes a halting approach to Lindsey, and, prodded by her girlfriends, she responds favorably. (You have to wonder at the need for outside encouragement, since a bright girl like Meeks would certainly have realized from Ben’s surname alone that he’s the right man for her.) After a disastrous first date (she has food poisoning, and he spends the evening caring for her, even cleaning up the mess she’s made in the bathroom), they become an item, even though one of her friends wonders why such a pleasant, likable guy is still on the shelf at his age.
The answer comes with the opening of spring training, when Ben takes off to Florida on his teaching break, and exhibits himself on ESPN as a wild-eyed fan of the sort that Lindsey’s dad Doug (James B. Sikking) dismisses as a jerk–though the term he uses is far earthier. (You might consider what happens an elaboration of the old song from “Damn Yankees”–“Six Months Out of Every Year”–except here the relationship problems occur before marriage rather than after it.) When the season proper begins, moreover, Ben tries to bring her girlfriend into his coterie with mixed results–especially since she’s overburdened with work she hopes will get her an important promotion (a project that will bring her into contact with a handsome agency customer played by Andrew Wilson). The conflict between their extraneous passions–hers for advancement, his for the team–naturally endangers the mutual passion they feel for one another, especially when her job offers them a trip to Paris that he demurs to take because it would conflict with an important game and she thinks she might be pregnant. Can each make the sort of compromises that will save their relationship? Don’t bet against it; this is a Hollywood movie, after all.
“Fever Pitch” is co-produced by Barrymore, and it tries to give approximately equal time to both sides of the romantic equation. But the fact of the matter is that it’s based on a book–or, more accurately, a part of a book–by British novelist Nick Hornby, the same part than Hornby used as the basis for an earlier movie of this title from 1997, which featured Colin Firth as a big soccer fan. (The credits identify the script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel as based on the book alone, but its dependence on Hornby’s previous adaptation is obvious.) And the pervasive theme of Hornby’s writing puts the emphasis on the male partner: all of his works are essentially about immature man-boys, stuck in some sort of obsessive rut, who’s put in a position where he must learn some degree of responsibility. It’s a solid subject, but even a solid subject can become tiresome upon repetition, and it’s this movie’s misfortune that two superior pictures with the same basic thrust have already been made from Hornby books–Stephen Frears’s “High Fidelity” (2000) and Paul and Chris Weitz’s “About A Boy” (2002). Both deal with Hornby’s perpetual theme but insightfully and compellingly; indeed, this goofier, weaker treatment of it might be seen as Frears ir Weitz Lite.
The near-trivializing of Hornby’s work here is typified in the fact that the still-childish man is played not by John Cusack or Hugh Grants, but Fallon. The ex-SNL cast member fares a lot better here than he did in last year’s dreadful “Taxi,” since he’s not required to play an utter moron, and his slightly befuddled, Stan Laurel-like persona carries a certain amount of charm. But there’s still a slightly infantile quality to him that makes Ben less a real character of the kind that Cusack and Grant created than a formulaic comic clown. (The device of having him instructed, at two major points in the movie, by adolescent observers emphasizes the fact. They’re cute scenes, but sitcom stuff.) Barrymore is similarly likable, but even she can’t make Lindsey intelligible other than as a woman who ultimately is willing to give up virtually everything–including, in a misguided big finale, her basic dignity–for a man (a nice man, to be sure, but a man nonetheless). Their supporting cast, especially in Fenway Park, is mostly composed of colorful eccentrics, and they get their share of easy laughs, as do Lindsey’s girlfriend buddies (and even the kids in Wrightman’s class), but none of them ever emerge as anything more than comic conventions. (Of course, neither do Ben or Lindsey.) The Farrelly’s direction tends to be a mite flat and lackadaisical, something that’s been more of a problem in their later pictures than their earlier ones, but it’s adequate, and on the technical side the picture is competent, especially in shuffling footage from the actual baseball season in with the fictional narrative (although a final summing-up provided by a third-tier character, whose narration also offers background exposition earlier on, seems very tacked on–because it was, to make the movie conform to the season’s outcome).
“Fever Pitch” may find its most fervent followers among Boston Red Sox fans who will enjoy seeing their favorite season repeated endlessly, if only partially, on film. But if not a foul ball, the love story in the foreground barely earns a single, especially by comparison to other pictures made from Hornby’s books. This is, at best, a distinctly low-grade “Fever.”