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A Moderate 'Fever'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2000

   


    'Fever Pitch' Ruth Gemmel and Colin Firth have differing views of football's importance. (Phaedra Cinema)
If you don't operate on the premise that soccer is the most important thing in the universe, you might not go along with everything in "Fever Pitch," a 1997 English movie that has only just surfaced here.

But maybe you'll understand a person's obsession with a sports team completely overruling his (or her) life. Surely that's a universal.

A passion for soccer – or rather, football – is the essential driving force behind Nick Hornby's adaptation of his best-selling novel. The movie, directed by David Evans, is about Paul (Colin Firth), a schoolteacher who has been obsessively following the London soccer club Arsenal since his childhood.

To be an Arsenal fan – as Hornby tells us in book and movie – is to be mostly miserable. Although the team had a glorious "double" in 1971 (when they won the country's two biggest national cups), they have never done more than come close to glory since then. Consequently, misery and dashed hope have been Paul's constant companions.

The year is now 1989. It's near the end of the season, with only a few games left. Arsenal is at the top of the table. But they have to keep winning to stay there. And now, 18 years after the team's last exultation, it looks as though Arsenal might just win the English league.

Of course, Paul knows that this could be another instance of life teasing Arsenal fans, daring them to hope, then tugging the prize from their trembling fingers.

As Paul goes to pieces under the pressure, a woman suddenly enters his life. She's a new teacher at Paul's school. Her name is Sarah (Ruth Gemmell), and she comes off as priggish. But Paul discovers she's also charming, attractive and perfect. The attraction is mutual and almost instant. But there is one problem, a big one: Sarah doesn't get Paul's passion for the club and the game.

She doesn't understand that he can't possibly make social plans until he has seen Arsenal's entire fixture list for the season. She's shocked to learn he wears boxer shorts festooned with pictures of cannons…Arsenal's emblem. She doesn't accept that he's stuck in a 21-year relationship that he can't just break off.

I have asked my wife to read this review carefully.

Hornby readers, I'm sure, will be mildly disappointed. The movie doesn't have the same appealing, melancholy tenor as the book. Hornby, who wrote the screen adaptation, has built the whole film around this Paul-Sarah element in a clear move to universalize the story – i.e., bring in non-soccer fans. The whole point of the book is to detail Paul's tragic adherence to Arsenal and to make it a virtue. But here, soccer is an intrusion in his romantic maturity. Not quite the same thing.

However, that said, the movie is still a potboiling pleasure. Firth is highly appealing as the scruffy, kid-inside-a-man Paul. And his hangdog devotion to Arsenal is writ clear and often amusing. When a mother excitedly talks about Paul's influence on her son Robert, she chatters on about Robert's new love for Arsenal – thanks to Paul.

"Robert thinks they might win the championship for the first time since 1970," says the mother.

Paul can't restrain himself.

"1971," he says.

Maybe the movie does bring a fair-to-middling compromise between the need to adapt a soccer-holic classic and to attract a wider audience, but it's still pleasurable. As a soccer fan, I admit I was disappointed that I didn't get to see enough actual soccer from the 1970s and 1980s. And frankly, I could have taken or left this central love affair. I mean, they're cute together and all, but how about the footie? Mainly, I loved the premise: that soccer is too important to dismiss as "just football." And that love for the sport can literally affect a whole chain of people: Paul, his career at school, his potential fiancee and the line of children that may or may not be born, depending on Arsenal's fixture list, of course. And to think, I can't even stand Arsenal.

FEVER PITCH (R, 98 minutes) – Contains obscenity, but really not so much for life in England. Some of that English muttering and those idioms may be hard to understand.

 

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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