In the hierarchy of American romantic comedy, novelty is as fruitless as it is infrequent. If a film deviates from the standard — boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back — it’s a sure bet that audiences will want little to do with it. As a direct result, nuance has replaced originality, and no one knows this better than the Farrelly brothers, the writing-directing team behind “There’s Something About Mary” and “Stuck on You.”
The brothers have sidestepped contrived conflict and saccharine sentimentality as narrative filler in lieu of their own brand of romantic comedy: the gross-out date movie. And from the moment audiences saw Cameron Diaz’s semen-soaked blonde locks combined with Ben Stiller’s asinine puppy love in “Mary,” they were hooked.
Nevertheless, with “Fever Pitch,” they step outside of their comfort zone, ditching the gutter jokes in favor of an only slightly less-exploited angle: the Boston Red Sox.
The remarkable thing about the film is that it is not a rushed hack job that aims to cash in on to the team’s triumph over their infamous 86-year losing streak last fall. The movie, based on British author Nick Horby’s memoirs of the same title, was in development long before the Red Sox’s stunning turnaround, and a reshoot was even required to give it a new, timelier ending.
Likewise, “Fever Pitch” is not a paper-thin ode to the pop-culture phenomenon, but rather a genuine — albeit fluffy — attempt to explore the culture of sports fandom and its consequences, translating Hornby’s fanatical soccer (er, football) follower into the story of a schoolteacher (Jimmy Fallon) in a 23-year-long love affair with the Red Sox.
His obsession just so happens to be interrupted by a sweetheart businesswoman (Drew Barrymore) at the worst possible time imaginable for a long-time Boston baseball fan: the beginning of their glorious 2004 season.
Even with its honorable intentions, “Fever Pitch” is still a distinctly hit-or-miss affair, both as a romance and as a cultural commentary. The romantic angle, typecasting Barrymore as a woman on the wrong side of 30 who’s desperate to find a guy, takes full advantage of her natural charm to channel viewers’ softer sides. The more thoughtful casting is that of Fallon. Though he’s not likely rise to the ranks of comedy superstars like Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey, he downplays his natural goofiness to provide an ever-so-slightly understated performance that suits the film well.
Alas, the romantic plot — from the glossy courtship to the inevitable final scene set at Fenway Park — is utterly transparent and will alternatively inspire swoons and eye-rolls at its self-conscious cuteness. The same goes for the film’s social commentary; while it takes on sports obsession and treats it as more than a plot device, it cuts itself short, acquiescing to the prepackaged narrative rather than aiming for any real insights beyond the superficial.
Still, “Fever Pitch” is a welcome change of pace for the Farrellys — a satisfying and sincere, if uninspired, bout of genre entertainment that wears its heart on its sleeve. As the third screen adaptation of a Hornby book, it falls short, offering only a fraction of “About a Boy’s” winsome charm and an even lesser approximation of “High Fidelity’s” insufferable wit. But as light, easy-to-swallow spring escapism, “Fever Pitch” just about takes it home.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars