'Fever Pitch' A Home Run, 'Sahara' Just Indy Lite, By Kurt Loder

'Fever Pitch' a near-perfect romantic comedy; 'Sahara' drifts away into clamorous inconsequentiality.

"Fever Pitch": Girl Meets Boy Meets Vomit Elf

Romantic comedies are like houses, really. Houses, too, are all basically the same: some rooms, a roof, a bunch of windows. What sets them apart from one another -- what distinguishes swell digs from dismal suburban shoeboxes -- is their particular design. "Fever Pitch," a new movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon, is a near-perfect romantic comedy, and the elegance with which it's been constructed is a beautiful thing to behold.

Barrymore plays Lindsey Meeks, a hard-charging Boston business consultant with not a lot going on in the way of a love life. When she meets Ben Wrightman (Fallon), a high school math teacher, there's an immediate spark on both sides. Ben is bright, cute, funny, and super-considerate. He's almost too good to be true -- why is he still unattached, a friend wonders. "Maybe he hasn't found the right person," Lindsey says. Her friend is dubious: "By now, he should be with the wrong person."

True enough, Ben has a horrible secret -- he's a complete baseball geek. Worse yet, he's a Red Sox fan. (It's the difference between being a coffee-drinker and a crack addict.) His bedroom, crammed with all the Red Sox pillows, blankets, clippings and photos he's collected since childhood, is a shrine to this most pathetic of teams. (The Sox haven't won a world series since 1918.) Lindsey is at something of a disadvantage in this alien universe. Not only does the fabled name of home-run king Carl Yastrzemski ring no bells with her, she can't even pronounce it. But okay -- she digs in, buys some books, and bones up on the sport. And things go well for a while -- to the point where, when Ben tells Lindsey he's made a list of all the things he likes about her, he says, "I'll skip down, 'cause the first six are body parts."

Then spring training arrives, and Ben announces that, as he does every year, he has to head down to Florida for a while to check out his boys as they warm up for the new season. ("Do the Red Sox ask your opinion?" Lindsey wonders.) Then -- out of left field, you might say -- something very worrisome happens, and it looks like the relationship may be over. Or is it? (Do you really need to ask this question?)

The directors, Bobby and Peter Farrelly, are best-known for lovable gross-out comedies like "Dumb and Dumber" and "There's Something About Mary." Here, though, working with a very funny script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (loosely adapted from a soccer-nut novel by the English writer Nick Hornby), they rein in their more anarchic instincts (a bit) and focus instead on classically fashioned, character-driven comedy. (There are flickerings of their wilder style, notably in the scene in which Lindsey, waking up after a night of heaving intestinal distress, asks Ben, sleeping chastely on her living room sofa, whether he really went to the trouble of mopping up her bathroom. "No," he says groggily, "the vomit elf came in. You were very ladylike, though -- very little chunkage.")

The Farrellys' impertinent zest for raw, poke-in-the-nose humor, however muted here, is a perfect preventative for the soft-center goopiness that afflicts so many romantic movie confections. And Barrymore and Fallon have a radiant chemistry that lifts the picture high above the usual boy-meets-girl formula. (Fallon makes his true leading-man debut here -- forget the dreadful "Taxi" -- and it turns out he's an American Hugh Grant.)

"Fever Pitch" isn't really a movie about baseball, a sport in which I have no interest myself. It's about childhood obsessions, and the need to outgrow them, at least a little bit. It's a grand romance about the unexpected ways in which love really can conquer all. In the end, even the Red Sox finally score.

"Sahara": Musclebound

Many's the movie that's tried to knock off the Indiana Jones pictures since the first of them, "Raiders of the Lost Ark," was released in 1981. None has succeeded, although several -- "Romancing the Stone" (1984), "The Mummy" (1999), "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" (2001) -- have made a lot of money. Now there's "Sahara."

Matthew McConaughey stars as intrepid adventurer Dirk Pitt, who swashbuckles his way around the world with NUMA, a privately financed underwater-salvage group led by retired admiral James Sandecker (William H. Macy). NUMA is dedicated to hauling up priceless antiquities from the subaqueous muck in which they rest and spiriting them away from the thieves and profiteers who inevitably covet them. (You can almost hear Indiana Jones himself muttering, "They belong in a museum!")

Dirk is naturally assisted in his many exploits by a wise-cracking sidekick, Al Giordino (the invaluable Steve Zahn). And naturally there's a knockout romantic interest, too: Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz), a scientist and physician with the World Health Organization, who's on her way to the northwest African nation of Mali to track down the source of a virulent plague. Dirk is on his way to Mali, too, although as the movie opens he's not aware of it yet.

In fact, he's not even present when the movie opens, since it opens in 1865, in Richmond, Virginia, in the waning days of the American Civil War. Here we see an armored Confederate gunboat (called an "ironclad") attempting to blast its way through a Union blockade, with a treasure trove of gold coins onboard. The ironclad disappears, and is never sighted again. What happened to it? Flash forward 140 years and we learn that Dirk -- who's obsessed with this obscure mystery -- is pretty sure he knows: the boat came to rest ... in the Sahara Desert. (I know, I know -- but that's what he thinks.)

Dirk's quest is sidetracked by the race to trace the plague, the spread of which is being hastened by the movie's two designated bad guys, a nasty African dictator (Lennie James) and an icy billionaire industrialist (the vividly supercilious Lambert Wilson). There's a lot of action, of course. Some of it, like a speedboat chase on an African river, is derived from old James Bond films; and some, like the scene in which Eva gets stranded at the bottom of a well, is blithely lifted from the Indy oeuvre itself. Breck Eisner, directing his first feature film, captures all of this capably enough; but he wasn't able to work up a lot of visual atmosphere in the bland, sunbaked glare of the Moroccan desert in which most of the movie was shot. And a purportedly "exotic" movie like this without atmosphere is just ... well, a movie like this.

The picture is itself plagued by two central flaws and one baffling absurdity. The baffling absurdity is its soundtrack. Why on earth, one wonders, over and over again, should an action yarn set in present-day Africa be peppered with '70s rock hits by the likes of Grand Funk, Head East and Lynyrd Skynyrd? Has Dirk discovered a second connection to that gold-toting Confederate gunship in the strains of "Sweet Home Alabama"? (He's too busy to ask, what with all the shooting and swaggering and blowing stuff up, but he's clearly a gullible lug, and he just might entertain such a notion.)

The movie's other problems are more central. One is the conception of the Penélope Cruz character. The filmmakers have gone so far out of their way to make Eva tough and brilliant (she wears glasses), and have taken such pains to ensure that she's not just a cliché hot babe, that they're left without a cliché hot babe. And given the monumental lack of heat between Cruz and McConaughey, a little ambient babe-ness would be appreciated, especially by the teen boys who are the target audience of a flick like this.

And then there's Matthew McConaughey himself. McConaughey is so ridiculously perfect a physical specimen -- so tan of hide and bulging of muscle and blindingly white of tooth -- that he seems to be playing, not an intrepid adventurer, but a high-salaried Hollywood star attempting a lame, winking parody of an intrepid adventurer. McConaughey may have more range as an actor than Harrison Ford, but he utterly lacks the sweet, self-deprecating humor that Ford brought to the Indy films. His square-jawed charmlessness leaves the movie without an anchor, and it drifts away into clamorous inconsequentiality.

"Sahara" rather resembles last year's "National Treasure," another film with a strained story line and deadening lack of visual richness. "National Treasure" made a lot of money, and "Sahara" probably will, too. But I doubt that 20 years from now anybody will be looking back on these two movies and thinking fondly of their box-office stats. If they're looking back at all, that is.

("Sahara" is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)