Those sports gods sure do love to mess with Hollywood. Last year, English tennis player Tim Henman nearly made it to the Wimbledon finals just before the movie Wimbledon came out, based on the premise that a Brit hadn’t made it to the championship in several decades. And as Peter and Bobby Farrelly were getting set to Boston baseball-ize Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby’s soccer novel about how a woman’s love balances out another losing season for a diehard fan, those darn Red Sox went and won their first title in 86 years in one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.
Then again, the underdog victory doesn’t make for a bad setting for the unlikely love between Ben (Jimmy Fallon), a goofball schoolteacher who sleeps on Red Sox pillows and wipes with Yankees toilet paper, and Lindsey (Drew Barrymore), a successful businesswoman whose friends say she needs to stop dating high-powered executive-types.
She loves “Winter Ben,” who’s sweet, caring and totally unconcerned with sports. It’s “Summer Ben” that threatens to doom the relationship, a Mr. Hyde version of an overgrown boy who’d rather go to a ballgame than on a romantic Parisian getaway. Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Robots), Fever Pitch is right on target in its presentation of some men’s obsession with what their women might see as just a game. They’ll dance for the right to go to the biggest series of the season, they’ll embarrass themselves on ESPN to declare devotion to the team, and, for them, an invitation to go to Opening Day is a major step in a relationship.
There are also a handful of jokes that will only be funny to baseball fans-when a friend of Ben’s refuses to dance for a Yankees-Red Sox ticket, Ben sarcastically asks him, “You holdin’ out for the Royals?” You don’t have to love the crack of the bat or the smell of a ballpark hot dog to enjoy Fever Pitch, but it’s a pleasure to detect that it was written by people who do.
With their first movie since the surprisingly tender Stuck on You, the Farrellys continue the softening of their humor, with only an awkward Red Sox fan who sells sponges feeling like a familiar Farrelly nutjob. The first act is a snooze, with the movie not really swinging for the fences until Lindsey discovers Ben’s love affair with the Sawwx. It also balks whenever Lindsey’s friends are present, a cliched assortment of onscreen teammates-the hot blonde, the wise brunette and the single, overweight girl-that drag Fever Pitch down like a Derek Jeter grand slam.
Yet Fallon and Barrymore make a charming, romantic duo with offbeat chemistry that feels as natural as washing down peanuts with cheap beer. Though not quite as funny or insightful as other Hornby adaptations High Fidelity and About A Boy, the film is a sincere love letter to the passions that, from the outside, might seem like hobbies but from the inside, are, as Ben says, as important as sex and breathing. It blurs the line between diversion and duty, between choice and commitment and between leisure and obligation. Fever Pitch understands that the people who have season tickets near you can feel like a family and that rooting for the team can be comforting even when they lose. It’s a fitting tribute to love and baseball, but do us North Siders a favor: Skip the first 20 minutes or so and instead spend it writing a letter to Tinsel Town asking for another movie about the Cubs.