Thursday, June 26, 2008

Movie Log: Fever Pitch (1997)

The Wife is an immense Colin Firth fan, so I'm not entirely sure how we missed Fever Pitch the first time around, but we finally caught up to it about a week ago.

This was the first attempt to adapt Nick Hornby's memoir of the same name into a movie -- an American version with Drew Barrymore came along a year or so ago, translating soccer football into baseball (and adding Drew Barrymore, which is no bad thing). I haven't seen the newer American movie, so I won't be comparing those two.

I have read Hornby's book, though, and it's a small gem of its kind. That kind, though isn't fiction, and it definitely isn't a romantic comedy, which both movies have been. The book is a serio-comic look at one man's obsession with a football team -- Arsenal -- and what that's done to his life. It extends out from there, as well -- Hornby is very thoughtful and interesting on the subject of a man's relationship to sports, and to any activity he's a passionate spectator of, giving over his emotional state to something he can't control.

The movie, on the other hand, is on the side of Paul Ashworth (Firth) from the start, which unbalances it. As in many rom-coms, two people with nothing in common are thrown together -- Paul and Sarah Hughes (Ruth Gemmell) are teaching in rooms next door to each other at the same London school, and dislike each other on sight.

Paul is a mussed, indulgent English teacher who loves football far too much. (Well, nearly all of the audience will think that, but the movie doesn't.) Sarah is a new teacher of history, all buttoned up and serious.

So Fever Pitch sets itself up as the story of how Paul loosens up Sarah, and she gets him to grow up. But that's not actually what happens. Over and over, Paul makes it clear that, in any and all circumstances, football will always come first in his life -- before Sarah, before work, before friends, before anything. He's unapologetic, even pugnacious, on that point, and Sarah never really pushes back the way she should. (The script was written by Hornby, who may have identified too much with his male hero.)

So, in the end, Fever Pitch becomes the story of how Sarah changes to suit Paul. And that's exactly backwards -- she was a little stiff, but she'd already loosened by that point. At the end of the movie, Paul is clearly the one who needs to change to make the relationship work...but he doesn't.

Fever Pitch has some nice performances, with Firth particularly good as the kind of guy who cares about his team more than anything else in the world. But it's not as smart about itself, or about that guy, as the original book was, and the ending is a problem.

(The cover up top is the current US DVD, which is frankly horrible -- I guess Firth is too big now to let his face be used for his old minor movies, but it misrepresents the movie very badly. The British cover, second, is better, but I could only find fuzzy versions of it.)

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