'Fever' pitches a few curveballs about relationships

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Last October, Boston Red Sox centerfielder Johnny Damon affectionately dubbed his team "a bunch of idiots." According to "Fever Pitch," a romantic comedy that's as winning as Damon's cheekiness, that description is equally applicable to those Sox fans for whom baseball supersedes all else in life - including proper maintenance of relationships.

Ben Wrightman (Jimmy Fallon) is one such fellow. He's a mild-mannered schoolteacher by day, loyal member of the Fenway faithful by night. Ben, who lives in a memorabilia-crammed apartment that's badly in need of a makeover by Queer Eye for the Sox Guy, doesn't think it at all unusual that he owns more MLB uniforms than regular clothes. After all, he's the sort of guy who runs out into the street in his underwear to greet the van delivering his season tickets. This man is not just a citizen of Red Sox Nation, he's practically its president.

During the off-season Ben starts dating Lindsey Meeks (Drew Barrymore), a hard-working executive in the city. She has no idea her new boyfriend is such a fanatic. (You'd think that a living room wallpapered to resemble Fenway Park's scoreboard would be a tip-off.) During gossipy chats with her three girlfriends, Lindsey blithely dismisses their observations that there must be a reason that a man as sweet as Ben is single. She's too smitten with her boyfriend's doting attention.

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Come spring - spring training in Florida, to be precise - another side of Ben emerges. The one that tells a television reporter that the three most important things in life can be ranked as the Red Sox, sex, and breathing. Suddenly, Lindsey is no longer the center of his world.

To Lindsey, Ben's unbridled fanaticism is on a par with Trekkies who translate the Bible into Klingon. Nevertheless, she tries entering Ben's world by accompanying him to games - albeit with a laptop so that she can keep up with her own obsessive work habits. She initially gets caught up in the fervor of the 2004 season and enjoys Ben's company. But, as the months wear on, she realizes that Ben is as inflexible as Manny Ramirez's bat. Ben spurns her offer of a weekend trip to Paris because it conflicts with a home game. Later, he berates her after he misses a humdinger of a game to attend a party with her. She had hoped to get more serious about their love affair, but he's too wedded to the team to ask Lindsey to marry him.

"Fever Pitch" burrows to the core of the most difficult aspect of relationships: compromise. The film centers on someone obsessed with a sports team, but the story's universality lies in the way that it can act as a metaphor of a variety of stumbling blocks in a relationship. On one level, the screenplay asks whether we can overlook a disagreeable trait in another person by focusing on the qualities we fell in love with in the first place. The answer might depend, in part, on whether that person is willing to temper his or her tendencies. For Lindsey, that means loosening up her work schedule. Ben, too, has to reassess his priorities after one of his students observes, "You love the Sox, but have they ever loved you back?"

While the nature of Ben's obsession is well observed, the screenplay doesn't delve into the psychology of why sports are such an integral part of so many men's lives. That question is better explored in the film's source material, Nick Hornby's same-titled memoir about his travails as an incorrigible fan of Britain's Arsenal soccer club. This second adaptation of the book (the first was a 1997 film with Colin Firth) woefully neglects supporting characters such as Lindsey's gal pals and their "Sox and the City" style banter.

This version does score gentle laughs, courtesy of its directors, the Farrelly brothers. Yes, the very same Bobby and Peter Farrelly who made gross-out comedies such as "Dumb and Dumber." Fortunately, they've opted to concentrate on the warm chemistry between Fallon and Barrymore rather than turning this baseball tale into "There's Something About Manny."

It doesn't matter that you know how the movie is going to end, both on and off the field. The finale should satisfy all but the most cynical viewers (and Yankees fans).

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