Fever Pitch, a fable that pits true love against baseball love, is one of the most ingratiating romantic comedies in quite some time, yet the fact that it was directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly almost works against it. The Farrelly name, to the extent that it remains a brand, sets up expectations — of a raucous sports satire, of laughter on steroids — that this winningly low-volume and humane little movie can’t satisfy. In comedy, we’ve all been conditioned to seek out the brash and the obvious: the fractious situational mix-ups, the Adam Sandler baby-men, the goo in the hair (thanks, Peter and Bobby). Performers are rewarded for their winking hipster absurdism, and so you might assume that Jimmy Fallon, a former Saturday Night Live star now trying to break into the Sandler/Ferrell stratosphere, would be packaged as another wild-eyed postmodern misfit — a goof-meister in italics.
In Fever Pitch, though, Fallon gets a chance to be that rarest of creatures, a comic actor who plays it straight. As Ben Wrightman, who teaches honors geometry to ninth graders, Fallon doesn’t overdo the stammering dorkiness; he’s nervous and sincere in a way that makes him a sweetly infectious Everyguy. A movie star can’t just be pretty. His features have to knead together in an interesting way, and Fallon, with those felt-tip-marker eyebrows, that chiseled nose and smile that make him look like Pinocchio the moment after he was transformed into a real boy, has an off-kilter cuteness. His anxious mental agility and eagerness to please make you root for him, because they come from a childlike place that can’t be faked.
The film is clever about setting up Ben’s romance with Lindsey Meeks (Drew Barrymore), a yuppie with a flirty grin and a vaguely defined high-powered job whom he meets when he takes a handful of students on a tour of her office. According to Lindsey’s 21st-century rule book, the fact that Ben teaches high school should make her run the other way (she must earn multiples of what he does). Yet he’s handsome and, in his scruffy and tentative fashion, rather witty, and we’re asked to enjoy his successful courtship as a symbolic victory for squarely dressed earnest geeks everywhere. That, how-ever, is a mere prelude to Ben’s big secret, which is that he has already given his heart away. He’s married to the Boston Red Sox.
Based on an essay memoir by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity), Fever Pitch was adapted by the veteran screenwriting team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Splash), who have transplanted Hornby’s tale of love, soccer, and suburban England into a tale of love, baseball, and Boston proper. This is the rare Farrelly film the brothers didn’t generate themselves, yet it’s a perfect addition to their gallery of men who haven’t grown up and the women they must remake their infantile souls for. Lindsey is more than happy to meet Ben’s Red Sox fixation halfway, as she joins him in the stands with his ”family” of fellow fans. She graciously endures his Red Sox pillowcases, his outbreaks of freakish behavior like yelling in a restaurant lest he hear the results of an away game that he has yet to view on tape. It turns out, though, that there is no halfway. Ben won’t part with the Sox, not even for an amorous weekend in Paris. When Lindsey gets struck on the head by a foul ball, his reaction — he high-fives the guy who nabs the ball — is not what is meant by love being blind.
Fever Pitch provokes tender chuckles rather than guffaws, yet you can feel the Farrelly touch in their eye for detail: Ben and his friends smelling the package of season tickets, the ingenious way that the 2004 season has been woven into the story. The biggest surprise is that the film is understated rather than exaggerated. Fallon brings off the neat trick of making Ben not a laughable sportsaholic but a lyrical young romantic with his wires crossed. There’s nothing macho in Ben’s worship of the Sox. His late uncle left him lifetime tickets just behind the dugout, and he has the starry-eyed excitement of a true believer. What he loves about the players, the contests, the mood of Fenway Park is that they represent a perfect world. Even the curse of the Bambino, the fabled myth of why Boston (until last year, of course) hadn’t won a championship since 1918, is a secret source of comfort: It testifies to the purity of his obsession — the ultimate in sports loyalty.
In Fever Pitch, Ben’s baseball ardor becomes a funny, moving metaphor for the arrested male’s inability to surrender himself entirely to love. High Fidelity featured the same setup, with rock fervor instead of baseball, only this is a far more urgent variation. The two actors are wonderfully matched. Barrymore has never lost her honey-glazed cuddliness, but there’s a hint of melancholy to her now, and it roots her big go-for-broke scene at Fenway Park, a moment of the deepest cornball perfection. It’s been a while since a movie made the game of love this winning.