Makers of ostensibly disreputable "gross-out" comedies such as There's Something About Mary and Me, Myself & Irene, the Farrelly brothers aren't natural filmmakers. But their films have a combination of anarchic glee and palpable generosity that gives their work both a distinctive personality and sense of purpose. The result has been a body of work that hasn't been taken as seriously as it should be. (There's Something About Mary was a box-office smash and one of the best American films of the past decade but had no prayer of getting nominated for an Oscar.)
The main problem with the duo's latest film the baseball-themed romantic comedy Fever Pitch isn't the one I expected: that stars Drew Barrymore and especially Jimmy Fallon would be too low-wattage for filmmakers used to letting the likes of Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey, Jack Black, Cameron Diaz, and Matt Damon run wild. Rather, it's that Fever Pitch is as close to "director-for-hire" as the Farrellys are liable to get. Right off the bat they share authorship with Nick Hornby, whose football-themed (right, soccer) book is the basis for the film. But the Farrellys are also working from someone else's script, one produced by a team (Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz) whose resume (A League of Their Own, Parenthood) reads anonymous but agreeable. The result isn't a romantic comedy reflected through the Farrelly prism (as Mary and Shallow Hal were) but a more conventional film where the directors' attempts to inject their own idiosyncrasies not so much the stray bits of only mildly effective slapstick and gross-out humor but the affectionately drawn band of misfits who make up Fallon's "summer family" at Fenway Park come across as more awkward and forced than in films they can call entirely their own.
Even if you haven't read Fever Pitch, the plot of the film will be familiar to you if you've read Hornby's more popular High Fidelity or seen its more successful film adaptation. The romantic-comedy elements are wrapped around a funny but tortured self-critique of Peter Pan syndrome, a consideration of the rewards and limits of cultural obsession, and the way immersion in music or sports (or any number of other things Star Wars movies, perhaps?) can affect one's interactions with other humans, especially members of the opposite sex, who tend to be less obsessive about those things.
In Fever Pitch, this takes the form of Ben (Fallon), a shlubby geometry teacher at East Boston High who is also an almost embarrassingly rabid Red Sox fan. (Confession: I've been a Sox fan for nearly 25 years and remember the torturous, thrilling '86 post-season like it was yesterday, so I can relate.) But Ben is forced to confront his baseball jones when he becomes smitten with high-powered business exec Lindsey (Barrymore), a non-fan used to dating guys with more than jerseys and sneakers in their closets.
At its frequent best, Fever Pitch combines the Farrellys' distinctive sunniness with a sportsaholic self-critique familiar from Ron Shelton's underrated Tin Cup. But Fever Pitch lacks both Tin Cup's sexiness (Kevin Costner and Rene Russo's grown-up courtship dance trumps Barrymore and Fallon's puppy love) and conceptual rigor. The rawness with which Tin Cup exposed its hero's empty machismo is why it wasn't quite the hit Shelton's previous sports flicks were. Fever Pitch edges into this kind of critique of Ben he turns down a romantic getaway to Paris because it conflicts with a midseason Fenway homestand but pulls back. Maybe because the Farrellys share Ben's obsession or, more likely, because the filmmakers, in this one case, are too nice for their own good.
So Fever Pitch lets Ben off a little too easy, disrupting the gender balance required of the greatest romantic comedies. For most of the movie, Fever Pitch seems as accessible to women viewers as men. (My wife's favorite part: when Ben explains that he and his friends like to scout the players and "talk about which to keep, which to get rid of" and Lindsey guilelessly responds, "And the Red Sox ask for you opinion?" Needless to say, she could relate.) But it ultimately embraces a boy's fantasy, and Lindsey's late-film revelation that she's the one who's been selfish rings hollow.
You have to wonder if the movie would have been different had the Red Sox not decided to reverse 86 years of history in the midst of the film's production, vanquishing the dread Yankees and seizing the World Series title. Faced with something as incredible as the 2004 postseason, perhaps it's hard to fault the Farrellys (New England boys themselves) for giving in to the rush.
Sahara, the new action film with Matthew McConaughey and Penélope Cruz, is based on the novel of the same name by Clive Cussler. I haven't read Cussler's novel or any other of his work, though he did pen the book that later became the movie Raise the Titanic (1980). Jason Robards was in that film. He later scoffed at the movie (which was a turkey), claiming he only did it for the money. Robards and his then-wife were remodeling their home, so they called the film Raise the Bathroom. A quarter-century later, Cussler has penned yet another book that has become yet another stinker.
Cussler's Raise the Titanic characters are back in Sahara but with distinctly 21st-century updates. McConaughey replaces stately Richard Jordan's Dirk Pitt, William H. Macy stands in for the late Robards' Admiral James Sandecker, and quirky clown Steve Zahn takes over ex-Navy Seal Al Giordino for grizzled character actor M. Emmet Walsh. These intrepid fellows work for the National Underwater and Marine Agency (a real organization founded by Cussler). Pitt is a lifelong devotee of an old legend of an ironclad Civil War ship that mysteriously crossed the ocean to Africa during wartime, bearing treasure and, perhaps, death. When a gold Confederate dollar shows up on the black market, Pitt knows he must be near the ship and borrows the good admiral's speedboat and buddy Al to head to Mali where, surely, they will find the ship. That's the first of two plots.
Plot two: Drs. Eva Rojas (comely Cruz) and Frank Hopper (Glynn Turman) are in Africa examining patients with distinctly plague-like symptoms. People are getting very sick and dying very fast, and though they work for the World Health Organization, nobody will take them seriously. So they trek on alone to find the source of the illness. Their appeals for help to a stylish French billionaire only put them into greater danger, as he is connected to Mali's baddest, toughest evil warlord whose political and financial ambitions are not remotely bothered by this plague. In fact, the plague serves as a distraction from his diabolical plans, which involve solar energy, toxic waste, and warlording in general. Bwa-ha-ha-ha!
Astonishingly, Pitt and Rojas encounter each other a number of times (Africa sure is small, ain't it?), even though they are searching for different things. But, just as all you have to do to make a Reese's cup is combine chocolate and peanut butter, all you have to do to connect the dots between a horrifying biohazard with an ironclad Civil War treasure is well, I don't know. And after seeing Sahara, I don't think I can recall how they figure out that the ship and the source of the plague are in the same place. But thank God Pitt and Rojas do or the Atlantic Ocean would be in a heap of trouble. Trust me.
If it pleases the court, I accuse Sahara of being utterly, completely, and totally ordinary. Nothing distinguishes this from its many source materials (James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Robert Langdon of The Da Vinci Code have all had DNA stolen in order to construct, nefariously, Dirk Pitt), nor does it seem to try very hard on its own. The buddy relationship is just like any other in movies, and the tepid romance is tacked on and extraneous. (Yawn.) In fact, there is more chemistry between McConaughey and Zahn. Pitt introduces pal Al as his "wife," and then, when asked how long they have "been together," Al answers "since kindergarten." They are more a couple than Rojas and Pitt seem to want to be. (Rojas and Pitt don't even kiss.) But who cares? The movie is put together well enough (by Michael Eisner's son Breck), implausible but fun, unimportant but diverting, unattractive but well-paced. McConaughey is colorful enough (in fact, one Web site commenter referred to him as "orange looking" in this), and Cruz, not very good in this role, is at least nice to look at.
Sahara's not bad. It's just not at all good. Shouldn't "not good" be bad enough? You tell me. n