' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Fever Pitch

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Great Movies: Fever Pitch

All seems lost. Ben and Lindsey have broken up because in a horrific moment of extreme selfishness Ben has essentially admitted that missing an unbelievable Boston Red Sox victory over the evil New York Yankees for a beautiful romantic evening with her was not worth it. Depressed, nearly catatonic, Ben has holed up in his Red Sox shrine of an apartment and covered the windows with tin foil where he sits, strewn with hot wing sauce, watching the end to the most devastating Red Sox defeat in history over and over. His friends burst in. "The Buckner Game?!" shouts one. "I thought you took that tape away from him?!" hollers another. Yet, oddly, in this lowest moment of the low, Ben has reached a certain form of enlightenment. "It wasn't just Buckner," he remarks, referring to the infamous moment in the 1986 World Series when Boston first baseman Bill Buckner allowed a slow rolling ball to trickle between his legs, sealing his team's defeat. "Stanley screwed him-" Stanley being the Boston pitcher "-he didn't cover first." It's a team game, as we all know, and no one man can do it alone.


Flash back to earlier in the film when Lindsey has learned her kind-hearted father has dyed his gray hair black in frightened response to turning 60. He is so unrecognizable the family dog barks at him, wanting to know just who the heck this stranger in his house is. "How can you stand it?" Lindsey asks her mother. "He fanned me with a magazine for four years when I was going through menopause," she explains. "I can put up with this."

"Fever Pitch", directed by The Brothers Farrelly, is a baseball movie, sure, but in the face of so many recent romantic comedies ("Leap Year", "The Proposal", "The Bounty Hunter", "When In Rome", etc.) that have left movie fans wondering how the genre has gone so wrong, it is important to remember that well made rom coms are not restricted just to cinema's Golden Age but were glimpsed as recently as 2005 in the form of this very film.

Jimmy Fallon, squarely in the only wheelhouse he has, is Ben Wrightman (could have done without the last-name symbolism, thank you), a math teacher but that is simply what he does and not who he is because who he is happens to be "one of God's most pathetic creatures - a Red Sox fan." Ever since he was moved to Boston by his mother when he was just a little kid, Ben has followed the Red Sox with a passion that straddles the border of psychotic. His home is "like a gift shop", from the Red Sox bed sheets to the Red Sox shower curtains.

Drew Barrymore is Lindsey Meeks, an "ultra-comptetive" executive of some kind in some sort of high-end company, the basics of which don't matter as much as the fact she is a workaholic who daydreams about a different life - well, until the mere mention of a promotion, that is.

The point here is that from the earliest moments this relationship does not feel force-fed; both of these people are intensely focused and capable of stunningly single-minded investments. This is not a politican and a curiously glamorous hotel maid nor an uber-organized, no-nonsense American taking a road trip with a scruffy bartending/cab-driving/hotel-owning Irishman. These are two people cut of the same cloth in a believable situation generating certifiable chemistry. Oh, screenwriting professors will harangue that conflict drives all scripts, and this is true, but too many apple-faced scribes seem to interpret that all conflict in romantic comedies stems from the ancient standby opposites attract when the inherently obvious fact that men and women all on their own are opposites goes unnoticed. "It is a movie," the esteemed Roger Ebert writes, "about how men and women, filled with love and motivated by the best will in the world, simply do not speak the same emotional language."

"Fever Pitch" is based on Nick Hornby's memoir, though based is not really the right word. How about Took Its Title From instead? Hornby's book is fantastic, to be sure, and proudly resides on my book shelf, but this adaptation by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel goes it alone, much like Fallon's Ben, 30 years of age, sans cellphone and blackberry, is when he chaperones a few promising math students to Lindsey's office where she shows them around while catching Ben's eye in the process. Now hold it just a second. Technically, I suppose, this is the Meet Cute, but it all seems very plausible, very grounded, doesn't it? Especially when she shoots him down. After all, why's he still single at 30?

-"Maybe he hasn't met the right person."
-"Well, by now he should be with the wrong person."


Lindsey relents and their First Date essentially functions as the Meet Cute wherein she has become violently ill and Ben wins her affection by staying and tending it to her and this will lead to another date and so on. But hovering over these early days of courtship is the brutal confession Ben must eventually make. "I am a Red Sox fan." Little does she know.


As baseball season opens and Lindsey begins attending games with Ben in his prime seats inherited from an uncle she is introduced to his "summer family" (including divorcees who still share their tickets), gobbles up every book on the team she can find and shows a genuine intrigue in attempting to decipher this obsession of her boyfriend's. But Ben's mania is so severe he fails to recognize that his efforts to absorb Lindsey into his passion cause her problems at work and one of her friends explains: "You're being colonized." Indeed, Lindsey seems to be making concessions while Ben stays the course.

At one point Lindsey extends Ben an invitation to take a spur of the moment transatlantic trip to Paris to which Ben frowns and stammers: "This isn't the best weekend for me. We're two games out of first with three weeks left. This is when they need me." Lindsey replies: "They need you?" She goes on to explain: "You don't see us tangled up in the sheets with the Eiffel Tower in the window, you see the Mariners are coming and Pedro's pitching Friday night." Well, yeah. It's how a man's mind works.

What "Fever Pitch" knows above all else is that men and women mature and develop at much different rates. This dates back to Annie Hall progressing while Alvy Singer remained stagnant. Lindsey progresses, Ben stagnates, and it takes him longer than it should to realize it, much like it takes every male in the modern world longer than it should to realize the same thing even as we yearn to deny it. Bill Simmons, an immensely popular sportswriter for ESPN and even more immense Red Sox fan, made no secret of the fact he despised "Fever Pitch" but what is so interesting about his immense dislike of it is how his wife and stepmom both agreed that the Fallon character reminded them of him.

No self-respecting male wants to admit that if they shared the most "incredible night of my life" with their significant other only to discover they had missed the most incredible comeback in the history of their beloved team's franchise that they would not flip out and blame their significant other. But.... Years ago my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers needed LSU to upset Tennessee to potentially have a shot to play for the National Championship and at one point my then-girlfriend stared me down and said - ordered, really - "If LSU loses you do not get to be pissy the rest of the night." I agreed, of course, but LSU did wind up winning and I often wonder if that agreement would have held up had they not. (Answer: No chance in hell.)

The film concludes with an update on the traditional Running-To-The-Airport Sequence with Lindsey instead Running-To-America's-Most-Beloved-Ballpark. Writing for the New Yorker, David Denby, who hardly ever meets a movie he even kinda likes, declared this scene as "idiotic". Yet in a lengthy piece a couple years later, written in the wake of "Knocked Up", functioning as a rememberance of the entire rom com genre and a partial takedown of its new breed, he writes: "There’s nothing in it that is comparable to the style of the classics — no magic in its settings, no reverberant sense of place, no shared or competitive work for the couple to do." Of course, this line describes the "idiotic" closing scene in "Fever Pitch" to a tee. The magic of Fenway Park in those moments right before the comeback to end any and all comebacks, reverberating a sense of place like no other, this place where Ben first fell in love with the Red Sox and fell just as hard for Lindsey and felt that love for her crumble as he attempted to determine what was and wasn't important in life, and, of course, most crucically, the competitive work - Ben showing that he's her kinda guy because he'll give up the Sox and Lindsey showing that she's his kinda gal because she'll dash across the field at Fenway - "Is it spongy?" - because she won't let him give up the Sox. This is one couple that is gonna "try to do all of it." Idealism? F---, yeah. Anyone who hates idealism never had any ideals to begin with, if you ask me.

And if Rose DeWitt Bukater's greatest moment of free will may well have caused the lookouts on the Titanic (which sank the same week Fenway Park opened as "Fever Pitch" tells us) to not spot the iceberg in time and seal the ship's fate then perhaps it stands to reason that Ben and Lindsey's reaching for the stars got Roberts to steal second and propel the long-suffering Red Sox to immortality. Who's to say? Only two times since the advent of the 7 game professional playoff sports series in 1905 had a team lost its first three games and then won the next four in a row - .095% percent of the time. Those were some seriously steep odds.

Hmmmmm....didn't someone once write love can overcome all odds?

(Postscript: Do you think the real-life Jimmy Fallon honestly thought he would live to see his team win a World Series and, better yet, do you think he ever thought that if he did live to see it he would also get to make out with the girl from "E.T." twenty seconds after it happened?)

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