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Published: Friday, 4/8/2005

Movie review: Fever Pitch ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Disclaimer:

The following review of Fever Pitch, the breezy, sweet new Farrelly brothers romantic comedy about a die-hard, lifelong Red Sox fan (Jimmy Fallon) and the woman (Drew Barrymore) who slides in between him and his devotion, is being written by a die-hard, lifelong Red Sox fan.

With that out of the way:

The morning after the Red Sox won the World Series, I got a phone call from an old friend. He and I grew up in Providence, R.I., and spent many afternoons at Fenway Park. He sounded heavily caffeinated and still buzzing from the celebration, and the first thing he said was not "Can't you believe it?" or "Are you coming in for the parade?" or even, "The curse is history!" (The curse, of course, being the infamous Curse of the Bambino, the 86-year pox on the Bosox for selling Babe Ruth to their mortal enemies, the New York Yankees.)

It was: "OK, Mr. Movie Guy, tell me something. What the heck were Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore doing on the same field as Pedro and Johnny Damon and Francona? The Red Sox win their first championship in 86 seasons and they're on the same field? Making out? As far as I'm concerned, that is sacred ground - sacred ground that should be colonized now by New England - and they violated it, and I am extremely perturbed about this."

He used different words.

More colorful words.

He smelled Soxploitation.

He wasn't wrong, but the result of that opportunistic limelight grab - briefly glimpsed at the end of the film - is far more charming and heartfelt than anyone (in New England, at least) expected. Here's what happened: Peter and Bobby Farrelly read Nick Hornby's memoir, Fever Pitch. It tells the story of Hornby's fanatical following of the British soccer team Arsenal (and was already once adapted in England, with Colin Firth). It captures the agony and the ecstasy of devoting yourself so entirely to a team that you know in your heart will let you down every time. Being from Rhode Island, sort of a suburb of Red Sox Nation, they saw, um, similarities.

As with Hornby's High Fidelity, itself about record store obsessives, the idea to transport the emotions (but not the details), proves inspired. The funny thing is, after filming wrapped on the Farrellys' Fever Pitch - which just happened to follow Fallon and Barrymore through the incredible 2004 season - the Sox's inevitable September collapse began to reverse itself. They had already shot an ending: the Sox fold, Fallon grows up, the devotion goes on. But in game 4 of the American League Championship Series with the Yankees, in the ninth inning, the Farrellys had the makings of what would be a finale even Hollywood wouldn't write, if it hadn't actually happened.

So, with screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (who wrote A League of Their Own and the famous line "There's no crying in baseball"), they retooled the story to include that late-season surge, and the alchemy and timing created a final film that at times is as chill-inducing as you would hope. Still, let's not oversell Fever Pitch: It's safe, predictable, sentimental, often lazily directed, the acting is spotty, and the Farrelly brothers blow a handful of beautiful opportunities - but you know how sometimes you adore something even though you know better?

What Fever Pitch has going for it is history and a warmth and generosity that becomes it. The Farrellys, as always, start with the right details and then get broad. Ben (Fallon) is an honors geometry high school teacher. When his Sox season tickets arrive in the mail, he pulls them from the overnight box and smells them and runs his hands over them, and when he meets Lindsey (Barrymore), a workaholic (the film is too slack to even assign a profession), he's careful not to mention his beloved Red Sox.

The Farrellys cleverly allow this to draw to mind two things: First, films about lovers who must, inevitably, come out of the closet. And second, the actual highs and lows of a Red Sox season. That the Farrellys manage this without undermining the film's structure or allowing the device to slip into preciousness, is a far more subtle feat than they'll be credited with. The plot hinges not on the Sox but on compromise: Can Ben (not Lindsey, big distinction) find room for both the Sox and Lindsey (the first woman who would put up with his quirks), and can Lindsey imagine a life with a guy whose family extends to Red Sox Nation from April to October?

Even if Fallon is shaping into a farm-team Adam Sandler - hence, the casting of the bubbly Barrymore, who always brings out the best in the Sand Man - Fever Pitch is surprisingly careful not to treat his devotion with glibness. The Farrellys' camera glides through rooms full of memorabilia, points out the ways commitment to a team is not the only thing in life, but Ben is never painted as a loser.

"Is there anything in your life that you still love for 23 years?" he asks her. The Farrellys, who made their name on Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary, have gotten mellow but now they approach maturity with, well, maturity. They allow Ben and Lindsey to meet each other halfway - believably, too.

Is there a Farrelly Touch?

Yes, and you know it because the film is at its best in Fenway. They love the narrow streets of New England and the light in the air and their extras, often family and friends, look as charmingly uncomfortable as they always have. That family, you can tell, includes the Sox. They drop 1970s players like Jim Rice into flashbacks. When Ben takes his seats, he bonds with the people who have had the same seats for decades. The Sox are their secret code: Because the history involved is so heartbreaking, it's a perverse comfort. They have stubborn constitutions. Sox fans are not like other devotees, and the Farrellys capture it with love.

What they miss, surprisingly, is the rapture of the final days of the 2004 season. Fallon and Barrymore's celebration on the field, the juicy steam-rolling of the Yankees - it all goes too fast. For me, anyway. They also miss what that win means to fans, and how oddly sad it feels. After the World Series, the graveyards of New England were full of pennants and baseball hats left on the gravestones of Red Sox fans who never lived to see their team exorcise its demons.

There's no crying in baseball?

I can think of 10 million New Englanders who beg to differ.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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