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For Love of the Game

Batted balls plus batted eyelashes result in winning date movie


Since an alarming number of people have this pathological need to designate all movies as either "chick flicks" or "dick flicks" (useless labels, if you ask me, but whatever), I submit the new comedy Fever Pitch for their perusal. The theatrical poster - with stars Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon looking all cute and bubbly as they press up against each other - and the boy-meets-and-loses-and-regains-girl scenario would suggest that this skews female; clearly, it's the sort of film that Variety would normally report was attended during opening weekend by an audience comprised of 65 percent women.

But hold on, hot shots. What we actually have here is a representative of a new classification: "transvestite flicks." Fever Pitch may appear to the separatists to be a title that belongs in the C-section, but underneath its high heel exterior rests the unshaven soul of the American male whose religion can't be found in a church but rather in a stadium. Fever Pitch's true subject isn't the love between a man and a woman but between a man and his favorite sports team. As such, the movie's ability to balance the yin with the yang makes it the ideal date movie, a crowd-pleaser that follows many of the conventions of the modern romantic comedy yet doesn't betray its convictions for the sake of the usual embarrassing sops to formula.

Fallon, the Saturday Night Live vet trying to salvage his burgeoning film career after Taxi crashed and burned so spectacularly last fall, plays Ben Wrightman, a mild-mannered school teacher who decides to ask the sexy and successful consultant Lindsey Meeks (Barrymore) out on a date. Lindsey isn't used to dating guys like Ben — i.e., men without cash to burn and designer suits lining their closets — but she takes a chances and likes what she sees — really likes what she sees. As Lindsey notes, Ben has a romantic soul, and they make a good match.

But Lindsey's friends can't help but wonder why a seemingly great guy like Ben is still single, and Lindsey prepares for the worst when he announces that he has something to tell her. Then he drops the bomb: He's a Boston Red Sox fan. And not just a casual fan, or even a fairly serious fan, but a fanatical, obsessed, can't keep his mind on anything else type of fan. The lifelong holder of season passes (left by the deceased uncle who first introduced him to the sport when he was a wee lad), Ben's entire existence revolves around the team during baseball season. He hits the road to watch them during spring training; he creates a giant chart of the entire season that allows him to map out which of his friends gets to accompany him to which games; he sleeps under Red Sox blankets and sheets; he makes his purchases with a Red Sox credit card (as the holder of a St. Louis Rams MasterCard, I can relate); and his toilet paper is adorned with the logo of the team's dreaded rivals, the New York Yankees.

Initially, Lindsey thinks she can work around his undying devotion to the "cursed" team that hadn't won a World Series since 1918 (indeed, the movie's ending had to be rewritten during filming to incorporate the team's miracle win last year). She accompanies him to games, buys books on the organization's history, and even covers his ears whenever someone in the vicinity is discussing that day's away game before he has a chance to watch it for himself on tape. But Lindsey's patience eventually starts to wear thin once she realizes that he will never love her the way he loves the Sox, and that her plans will always be held hostage by the team's schedule. The fact that Ben passes up a romantic weekend in Paris to catch a couple of home games against Seattle especially irks her, and she soon starts to reconsider her relationship with this man-child.

Fever Pitch is based on the novel by Nick Hornby, in which the sport at hand was soccer rather than baseball. Longtime screenwriting partners Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel Americanized the tale, and the resultant screenplay is full of gentle laughs and perceptive asides (I almost forgive the pair for contributing to the crapola script for Robots).

The behind-the-camera surprise is that the film's directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, who will probably be forever associated with the gross-out gags of their early works. Yet in their better movies — There's Something About Mary, Kingpin and the underrated Shallow Hal — there exists a sweetness that belies the barfs, and this picture merely places that quality front and center. Like the character of Ben, Fever Pitch comes across as a scruffy romantic, not always suave on the surface but harboring an irresistible tenderness inside. More notably, the movie largely communicates the blinding passion that defines the lives of serious sports fans, empathizing with their extreme ardor yet also mindful of the strains that these myopic individuals place on those around them.

As the working girl who finds reality impeding on her fairy tale romance, Barrymore sparkles brightly, just as she always does when faced with these sorts of rom-com predicaments. Unlike, say, Brittany Murphy, who works overtime manufacturing adorable facial tics in an effort to convince us that we'd love to reach out and pinch her dimpled cheeks (either set), Barrymore's cuddly affections come naturally, making it absurdly easy to warm up to her put-upon heroines. Less successful is Fallon, a vanilla comedian who doesn't always capture his character's overriding passion for the Red Sox or his burgeoning affection for Lindsey. Fallon admittedly becomes easier to take as the movie progresses, but a more experienced screen star, like Adam Sandler or Vince Vaughn, would have nailed the role on opening day. Still, if the casting of Fallon occasionally seems like an error, most other elements insure that Fever Pitch belongs in the major leagues.

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