I’m not here to tell you that “Fever Pitch” is a secret masterpiece, and even if I believed that, I doubt that you’d believe me. That being said, what it actually is still represents something of a feat: a modern romantic comedy that tries to deal with the messy process of nurturing a proper adult relationship rather than simply shoehorning two lovers into a predictable set of catastrophic circumstances until they finally succumb to one another.
Until its climax, the Farrelly Brothers’ 2005 adaptation of Nick Hornby’s soccer-minded memoir (actually “football,” yes, I’m aware, moving on) genuinely values the compromise that comes with real life over the reliable contrivance of rom-com fare, and even then, its only-in-the-movies ending seems worthy of the fantastical upturn of the Boston Red Sox’ own 2004 season, which even the screenwriters hadn’t anticipated at the time.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though.
This is the story of a love triangle, one between a man, a woman and his favorite sports team. To be fair, Ben (Jimmy Fallon) makes this clear to Lindsey (Drew Barrymore) early on, acknowledging that his passion for the Sox has come between him and other girls, but this workaholic is willing to roll with it. Instead of being worried that she’ll once again prioritize her job over her latest boyfriend, she assumes that his games will keep him suitably occupied in her absence. What seems like an ideal arrangement turns out to be a tacit agreement in mutual neglect, and while Ben’s fanaticism takes on exaggerated proportions, it’s key that writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel accept in a very real way that people can be as devoted to their traditions and institutions as they are relationships. Fans of Hornby’s own “High Fidelity” or its screen adaptation shouldn’t be surprised; they are essentially the same thing, with LPs swapped out for HRs and fewer catty asides to the audience.
Whenever Lindsey’s family and friends refer to Ben, they call him “the schoolteacher,” and while our leading lady is initially dismissive of such a casual label, it’s fitting that Ben might only exist as an abstract to her, this elusive idea -- nay, ideal -- of a steady, healthy, meaningful relationship. Out of the stands, he’s the outsider, panicked at dinners when strangers opt to discuss a game he hasn’t yet watched, absent at parties because he’d rather be with his “summer family” than dare to meet hers. At Fenway, though, Lindsey gets to be the Other for a change: distracted, distracting, ignorant to the rules of the game and callous towards the superstitions of its fans (as such, she is seemingly punished for her skepticism with a flyball to the noggin).
It’s made clear from the start that Red Sox home games began as a steady surrogate for Ben’s broken home, the need for which adult Ben has never shaken. However questionable his behavior, this aren’t just lazy, Apatow-like man-child antics; these are honest-to-goodness deep-seated associations between commitment and happiness. I may not care much for sports myself, but as speaking as someone who has spent many a weeknight and Saturday morning seated in dark theaters with complete strangers, it’s not hard to extrapolate Ben’s baseball-fueled bliss as just about any other time-consuming pursuit, occupational or otherwise.
For all this neurotic groundwork, “Fever Pitch” is still a decently enjoyable movie, beholden to sitcom-like lighting and gentle stabs at the ol’ Farrelly crudeness (at worst, a non-starter ball-shaving gag; at best, Ben cleans up Lindsey’s unseen vomit on their woebegone first date), but bolstered by an emphasis on their trademark sweetness, a salve here that would only proceed to appear at odds with the hard-R flop-sweat of 2007’s “The Heartbreak Kid” and 2011’s “Hall Pass.”
By the time we get to our formulaic third act, Lindsey decides to leave a Big Meeting in order to make a Big Gesture to win back Ben before thousands of fans and viewers, as he goes about selling off his inherited season tickets. After splitting up, Lindsey does have a promotion going for her; there’s at least some measure of gain to come from shirking their relationship. For Ben, it’s much less of an either/or proposition. He isn’t selling his tickets in an effort to win Lindsey back so much as attempting to put away childish things, but if he forsakes them both, then he is likely forsaking ever loving anything or anyone so deeply again. He wants something safe, she wants something safe, and yet in the end, they admit that trying to strike that balance with one another is better than risking nothing at all.
In a movie that is itself the very definition of “safe,” that sentiment seems more fair than foul to me.