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Fever Pitch

Even though it spent six months on the best-seller list in England, Nick Hornby's 1995 novel Fever Pitch went unnoticed in the U.S. His well-received 1997 English film adaptation of his beloved memoir never made it on to more than just a handful of screens stateside, despite the popularity of light English comedies like The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine and Saving Grace. Nevertheless, Hornby's follow-up work, High Fidelity, and the film adaptation starring John Cusak, had no such struggle, finding instant critical and commercial appeal in America, even though it is in many ways eerily similar to Fever Pitch. How do you explain this dichotomy? Simple. Fever Pitch's subject matter is poison to the American gestalt: soccer. Colin Firth stars as Paul, a literature teacher with a one-track mind, and it isn't the works of Thomas Hardy. Paul is obsessed with Arsenal, the North London football team whose home games once served as fragile link between him and his estranged father but now acts as a sort of biological metronome. For Paul, the new year begins in August and ends in May, and summer is a miserable wait for the next season to kick off. This makes tough going for Paul's girlfriend, fellow teacher Sarah (Ruth Gemmel), who is reluctant to jockey for affection with a team nearing its first championship in 18 years. Hornby understands spectating the way Ron Shelton understands playing sports: It's not simply an act, but a philosophy. To be a fan means to live in a constant state of frustration, pessimism, fatalism, and criticism — but to do so in unison with 30,000 other fans is comforting, especially when your personal relationships are often rife with conflict. Football is a constant, and for the family of fans, love is unconditional. Hornby's novel, chronicling his own love for Arsenal, is a breathtaking combination of wit, confession, introspection, and revelation. However, the film — although a fine entertainment — falls short. Too little time is spent on Paul's evolution as a fan and his disenchantment waiting out the years as Arsenal develop a reputation for "boring" dismal play, and too much time is spent on the conventional plot-line of his relationship with Sarah, who has a sweet face but the personal spark of mulch. Squeezed into 100 minutes, neither relationship (Paul + Girl, Paul + Arsenal) is given time to develop satisfactorily, and this may leave non-sports fans wondering what all the fuss is about. But Hornby's affectionate, obsessive tone remains intact, and even this writer, an Arsenal-hating footy-fan, is reluctantly touched by the finale. Finally released on video in North America, Fever Pitch has been dealt a severe blow by marketing cretins. The misleading packaging, featuring a topless woman strategically dangling football boots in front of her chest, makes this modest, thoughful film look like a third-rate Porky's. Shame. Presented in 1.66:1 widescreen and both DD 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround. Trailers, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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