A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG-13, 98 mins.
Lindsey Meeks: Drew Barrymore / Ben: Jimmy Fallon / Uncle Carl: Lenny Clarke
/ Teresa: Jessamy Finet / Carrie: Miranda Black / Troy :Evan Helmuth
/ Ryan: Brett Murphy / Chris: Johnny Sneed
The Farrelly Brothers, Bobby and Peter, have always merrily teased us with their less-than-PC comedic films. There is no mistaking the notion that they are the Shakespeares of modern, lowbrow screen comedy.
Consider their list of: 1996’s KINGPIN, about a one handed bowler and his Amish protégée (easily one of the funniest films of the 90’s); DUMB AND DUMBER from 1994, a masterpiece of buffoonery; 1997’s THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (where in one infamous and memorable moment Ben Stiller’s hapless character let’s Cameron Diaz use a bodily fluid that is definitely not meant to be used as a hair product); 2002’s SHALLOW HAL (which was about and obese woman who looked drop dead gorgeous to Jack Black); and finally 2003’s STUCK ON YOU, which was about conjoined twins.
On paper at least, the films of the Farrelly Brothers look like a relative uncultured and vile menu of hurtful jabs at those that are less fortunate than the average person. Yet, the ignorant, lay viewer makes the cardinal mistake of pigeonholing their works like that. The Farrelly Brothers are filmmakers that take great pride in disgusting us and going to great lengths to make us chuckle (who could forget how one character “took care of” a bird who’s head was ripped off in DUMB AND DUMBER?), but beyond these obvious sight gags lies a great deal of sensitivity and heart, not only to their stories but also to their respective characters.
It should be pointed out that they never make fun of handicaps or those with exceptionalities, but rather have sensitive laughs with them, and do not dissolve into going out of their way to make audiences feel sorry for them. They are two of the more democratic filmmakers working today, allowing their handicapped characters to be fully realized and liked personas that are dealt with frankly, naturally, and truthfully. The conjoined twins of STUCK ON YOU feel as ordinary and real as any two people we might meet on the street. People automatically see the using of these types of characters as being in bad taste, but once these figures are developed as fun loving, affable, and interesting, it's hard to see them that way. Maybe if people realized the Farrelly’s work with the handicapped outside of their film work, then maybe they'd be able to see how they never condescend their characters, but embrace and sympathize with them.
This all, of course, brings me to their recent film, FEVER PITCH, which may be their most assured, confident, and winning screen comedy to date. With their last two films, SHALLOW HAL and STUCK ON YOU, you begin to see a sort of maturation of their style and direction. Those two films had subject matter that some could see as offensive, and both had there respective share of lowbrow humour, but you also start to see a sort of odd sweetness to their stories and characters. Yes, both had the usual brand of Farrelly Brother sight gas, which were funny, to be sure, but they also worked as emotional stories that were revealing and endearing.
FEVER PITCH is a natural and further transition into this kinder and gentler level of Farrelly comedies. People who worship the type of disgusting laughs that appeared in their earlier films (like, in KINGPIN, where one character drinks a liquid that he believes is cow’s milk) may be less than lukewarm to their new films. Yet, FEVER PITCH is just as fresh, charming, and funny as their previous efforts. This film continues to demonstrate their unique abilities to be sensitive to their characters without trying too hard to push our heartstrings. Instead, they tell an involving story with characters that are rich and instantly likeable.
FEVER PITCH marks the first time that the Farrelly Brothers have directed a film that they have not written. The film was written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, both who have a keenly astute eye for characters and dialogue, and their past work in PARENTHOOD and the highly underrated FORGET PARIS is indicative of this. The source material is from the Nick Hornby book of the same name. Hornby's novels have made for some of the better romantic screen comedies of the last few years, like the great HIGH FIDELITY and the brilliantly funny ABOUT A BOY. Those works have vastly different characters and stories, but they are analogous in the sense that they all reveal their intelligent and perceptive humor in human relationships and, more crucially, how men and women see one another. Not only that, there is also a sense of closeness and perspective with the characters in these films. They are not cardboard cut-outs that serve the need to progress the story and punctuate the film with laughs; they feel real and articulate themselves well to the point where we feel we know them.
FEVER PITCH works a lot like this, but it also is right up the Farrelly Brothers’ alley in the sense that it also deals with a character with a “handicap”, so to speak. Ben (Jimmy Fallon, perfectly cast for once) is not bothered by a physical disability that impedes his progress, but rather by a mental one. He is an addicted fan of the Boston Red Sox. “Addicted" may be a gross understatement – he is a Red Sox-aholic with no stopping in sight. Yes, he’s a nice, warm-hearted, and congenial chap who carries about him a nice sense of humor and an ability to be fun loving and cheerful most of the time, but make no mistake about it, his life is a Red Sox life. He has season tickets in a spot that most diehards would only dream of. The people he sits with are his “family”. His apartment looks more like a shrine than a place to live in. He’s so enamored by the Sox that he, for the life of him, can’t understand why others don’t see things his way. Yes, he has a boyish enthusiasm about life in general, but when it comes to the Sox, one begins to worry that if he ever quit cold turkey that the withdrawal effects would be disastrous. At one point when Ben says that his obsession for the Sox has been a problem for him with women, he was not kidding. It becomes abundantly clear why he is a 30-year-old single man.
Things get turned around for the best and worst for Ben when he meets Lindsey, played affectionately the only way Drew Barrymore can, who is a rich and successful business executive. Clearly, they are opposites, at least on an income and success level (Ben is a teacher), but sparks begin to strike fast, especially in an early scene when their first date begins with Lindsey having food poisoning and ends with her vomiting everywhere. To her amazement later, she realizes that the incredibly nice guy in Ben stayed the night with her, cared for her, and even cleaned up all of “her” mess. Soon, they fall in love, but they do so during the winter season. What she is not prepared for is Ben, the Summer Season guy, where his love of the game will become a huge roadblock.
Lindsey, however, is especially undemanding and understanding of Ben’s love of the Sox, at least at first. Sure, she makes the odd verbal jab at his fixation (when she looks at his closet for suit clothes and sees nothing but baseball merchandise, she deadpans, “This is not a man’s closet!”). Yes, she sort of understands that the Sox are a real passion in his life, but when things start to get a bit desperate for the two, she begins to have cold feet about their relationship. After all, baseball is just a game, right? Notwithstanding that, but Ben’s love has reached a sub-human, almost infantile levels. Yes, Ben loves the Sox so much that, in one hilarious but sad moment, when Lindsey gets smacked by a foul ball right on the head and is knocked out cold, Ben does not notice that as much as he notices that he caught the ball itself and now has a new souvenir. Adding more salt to her developing emotional wounds occurs when she offers him a weekend in Paris together, to which he quickly glances at a calendar and then tells her, “The Sox are only two games out of first and they need me this weekend.”
Now, I l know that many of the females that are reading this are saying to themselves, “C’mon, why does she stay with this obsessed lunatic?” Well, maybe because underneath his compulsive addiction to the Sox is a really sweet, caring, and loveable man (who else would have cleaned up her vomit on a first date, honestly?). He truly loves Lindsey very much, but his feelings for the Sox are equally strong, which makes FEVER PITCH easily the most offbeat and strange love triangle pictures of recent memory. Yes, it’s just a damn game, but the film achieves a miracle by making the Ben character a product of our sympathy and empathy for the most part. He is not a lecherous two-timer who has no sense of caring for Lindsey. He’s a good and nice man, as is Lindsey, who is more than a good sport with the sometimes-hapless Ben. Maybe I lack objectivity when looking at the Ben character. There are many times where I felt like slapping some sense into him myself, but there are other times where I really felt for him. I mean, c’mon, if your favourite team was down 0-3 in a playoff series to the New York Yankees and then comes from behind and defeated them in the series in the single greatest comeback in recent sports history, even the modest fan would say that they would have wanted to be there for that!
FEVER PITCH has an awful lot going for it. Like some of their previous films, it further amplifies how democratic and fair the Farrelly Brothers are to all of their characters, especially the lovers. The film does not really pick sides, but rather sympathizes with both of them simultaneously. The two leads are also very well drawn out and are given a surprising amount of depth considering the genre. It would have been so painfully easy for lesser filmmakers and writers to make the Ben character an infatuated loser, who lacks foresight into, well, life. Ben is infatuated with baseball, but he is not a loser and his heart is the right place all through the film. Lindsey is also an alluring figure in her steadfast approach to stand by the man she loves, even if it means dealing with his infatuations. Yes, the Red Sox have never really loved Ben back, but she feels for him and understands his dependency on the sport that has meant so much for him all through his life. The two characters love each other and sort of relate to one another, but their main obstacle is that, many times, they just don’t speak the same language. Yet, isn’t that the problem with all relationships, even the best ones?
FEVER PITCH is a great entry into the romantic comedy genre, and works successful on its intended levels. Not since perhaps WHEN HARRY MET SALLY has a screen comedy dealt so even-handedly with both sexes in a relationship. Obviously, women viewers will clearly relate to Lindsey’s plight for attention from Ben, whereas male viewers will empathize with Ben’s “hobby”. Yet, the film does not cater to some of the more slavish conventions of the genre. It makes both leads balanced emotionally and the individually performances themselves have that right healthy balance of light comedy and drama. More than that, the film is a wonderful concoction of sports and romance, and it’s a credit to the Farrelly Brothers for allowing us to invest in Ben and Lindsey’s story as much as we do. FEVER PITCH is amusing, touching, insightful, and perceptive about its characters and the plight they are in, and is one of the more embracing romantic comedies of recent memory. There is no denying the fact the Farrelly brothers are getting more cute and cuddly with their films, but FEVER PITCH is an example of feel-good sentimentality that is rarely done better.
JD Roberts of Regina, Saskatchewan e-mailed in to let me know that the Farrelly Brothers did not write KINGPIN, which would have also made that film a work that they directed but did not write. Also, he wisely let me know of one small error on my part in terms of relaying a scene: Fallon did not catch the foul ball that hit Barrymore in the head, but was rather celebrating with the man next to him that did. Thanks JD for the clarification!