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There’s something about Manny
Impossible dreams fulfilled in Fever Pitch
Pitch in

How the film kept pace with the Sox

LOS ANGELES — In Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, the little-used source for the Farrelly Brothers movie of the same name, a depressed Arsenal fan withers a would-be commiserator with the words: "What do you know about it?" Sox fans are familiar with this sentiment. They cherish the loneliness and pride of their affliction. These days, though, it seems anyone can share.

Like Jimmy Fallon. Sure, he played a deranged Sox fan on Saturday Night Live, but the guy is a Yankee fan. Yet he claims the experience of playing an obsessed Red Sox fan during the season in which the Sox broke an 86-year-old championship drought was for him a mystical experience.

"I was born and raised in New York," he confesses. "So I gotta be a New York fan. I catch three or four games a year, if anything. Nothing like this guy. He has Red Sox sheets and pillow cases. He has a framed Sports Illustrated cover of Tony Conigliaro that he genuflects to before he leaves the house. He’s got the Green Monster painted on his living-room wall. I’m not crazy like that."

Crazy? Sounds kind of normal up here.

Fallon concurs. "You hang around Boston for a week, you get it. It’s beyond baseball when you’re in Boston, it’s not even about baseball. It’s deeper. It’s like religion or . . . family, really. I get emotional thinking about it. When they won, I don’t think Boston fans were like, ‘We got a trophy’ or ‘We got a ring.’ They were like, ‘I gotta call my dad.’ Stuff like that. You would go by the cemetery and see hats on the gravestones. It’s deep, man. It’s like beyond anything I ever thought I would experience."

And how is it that Drew Barrymore, with no sports affiliation to speak of, gets to fulfill every Red Sox fan’s dream and run barefoot across the outfield past Johnny Damon and in front of a sellout crowd? ("Yes," she finally responds to the unanswered question in the film as to whether the grass is spongy or not. "But the little rocks hurt.") Or rush onto the field in St. Louis after the final out in the fourth game, when 86 years of hope and self-flagellation came to an end for generations of Bostonians living and dead?

Barrymore is duly reverent but not especially ecstatic recalling these moments. "When I ran across Fenway, that was at the end of a real game, the real players, the real fans, all 37,000 people. That was just unbelievable. And then shooting at the winning game of the World Series, we were right there on the field. That’s no re-creation. We live in a technological world where everything is CGI’d with cardboard cutout audiences, but that’s not what happened here."

It should be noted that Barrymore speaks not so much as a fan or just as an actor but as a producer of the film. She looks at the 2004 season and the Sox mania in general not as a fellow diseased sufferer but with the detachment of a businesswoman creating a product for a wide audience. The team’s unlikely turn-around she regarded more as a plot challenge than as proof of the existence of God. The original script, of course, assumed the team would collapse in the usual heartbreaking fashion. The new scenario sent them scrambling.

"We didn’t have to modify it as dramatically as people would think that we would have to, we just told the story we were going to tell," Barrymore insists. "But as we were talking about the Boston Red Sox history throughout the movie, and as we were shooting it, their history was changing, so what a phenomenal thing to incorporate into our film the miracle that was occurring. Instead of the boy getting the girl but his team loses yet again, he gets the girl and his team wins. It’s like everybody wins."

"When we started, they were like 10-1/2 games out of first, you know?" Fallon recalls. "And of course we didn’t have the Red Sox win the Series at the end of the movie. If we did, people would be like, ‘Bullshit! Give me a break, they’ve lost for 86 years. All of a sudden they’re gonna win? I guess it really is a comedy.’

"But then as we were filming, they started winning. And we were like, ‘What do we do if they win?’ And Boston fans were like, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll lose, pally. Don’t have a heart attack. I’ve done this for too long. We’re not gonna win. I don’t care how many bloody socks he has, we’re not gonna win.’ And then like they just started winning, we’re in shock. And then when we got to go to the Series, Pete Farrelly’s like, ‘Dude, we’re gonna put you guys on a plane, you’ll make it for the first inning. In case the Red Sox win tonight, we gotta be there. I mean, our movie’s about a guy who loves the Red Sox.’"

So what was the original ending?

"We go to outer space and invent the cure for cancer."

At least that would have been believable.

— PK

Fever Pitch's official Web site

The American version of Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby’s bestselling 1992 memoir about his passion for London’s Arsenal soccer club, retains only the title and the obsession from the original. And a few trenchant insights, like Hornby’s thoughts on the "clarity" of soccer. Hornby’s surrogate in the film, Ben Wrightman (Jimmy Fallon), a math teacher at East Boston High, echoes them when he explains the elegant honesty of both his subject and his favorite sport. You can’t fake it in math or baseball, he says, the way you can in art or literature or other endeavors. If you don’t get it right, it’s there for all to see.

Comedy also stands or falls on its own; if it’s funny, people laugh. Fever Pitch, the only film besides the forgettable Osmosis Jones the Farrelly Brothers have directed that they didn’t write, doesn’t get the laughs of Kingpin or even Stuck on You. A few gags, mostly with women getting hit in the head with various sports objects, draw on the Farrelly brand of crude, tasteless, gut-busting humor. The rest of the film enters the more amorphous arena of "romantic" comedy, a love story where the focus is on sweeter, more subjective sentiments.

Subjective because the success of a romantic comedy depends on the lovability of the love interest. One of the love interests in Fever Pitch is Drew Barrymore. Lindsay’s workaholic career woman poses a class conflict with Ben’s blue-collar Sox fanatic. She admires his two-decade-long commitment to a losing cause, and despite an apartment that "looks like a gift shop" and a wardrobe that doesn’t come from "a man’s closet," she doesn’t at first see it as a conflict with his commitment to her. But she also grows to love his bumbling, childlike sense of humor. Fallon gets a bad rap from those who see him as one of the worst of recent SNL alumni, but I’ve always liked his recurring role as the Fenway Bleacher bum often paired with Matt Damon. He doesn’t draw on this persona in Fever (no Boston accent, which he does well), but the character he creates transcends caricature and is indeed sympathetic, amusing, and lovable.

For his part, Ben is drawn to Lindsay because he’s challenged to score with someone out of his league — perhaps it’s the Red Sox inferiority complex talking. Then he finds her, as should the audience, more than just a trophy babe. Following a meet-cute first date in which he nurses her back to health after a bout of food poisoning (the Farrelly touches of disgusting sound effects, bodily excretions, and a small dog provide the right note of crude, comic intimacy), he begins to notice that she, too, is funny, flawed, smart, and "lyrical." In short, she’s Drew Barrymore. He says he could kill himself because of the adorable way she sometimes talks out of the side of her mouth. Who wouldn’t?

But then there’s the other love story, one that Red Sox fans and all those who have committed themselves to a consuming Sisyphean obsession will recognize. This malady is the heart of Hornby’s book, and he ruefully acknowledges that such manias, like similar disorders in his subsequent novels High Fidelity and About a Boy, are symptomatic of a refusal to grow up. It’s also a key to the Farrelly Brothers’ movies, and as Sox fans themselves, they bring insider pathos and absurdity to the pain.

They fashion convincing groups of fellow sufferers for Ben to share that pain with, including the equally freaky pals who each year gather to divvy up the pair of season tickets willed to him by his uncle (Lenny Clarke in a redolent cameo) and the clique of fans who populate his section in the box seats (one of them Jessamy Finet from the 2003-season documentary Still We Believe). They provide funky local color and also fill Lindsay in on the Curse of the Bambino, Bucky Dent, and Bill Buckner. After the past season, she must be the last person in America who’s not familiar with them.

The Farrellys got to shoot their love story where and when it was consummated — at Fenway Park last season. Romantic comedies are about impossible dreams, the wedding of desires in conflict with reality and in conflict with themselves. Maybe the Farrellys’ greatest achievement is the way the World Series win complements rather than overshadows the hill of beans of their protagonists. For cinematic images of romantic and comic triumph, it’s hard to beat Drew Barrymore, barefoot and beautiful, running across the Fenway outfield and into the arms of her beloved. At least for the Red Sox fans among us.

Issue Date: April 8 - 14, 2005
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