Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Forgotten Movies (Thanksgiving Edition): Richard Brooks' FEVER PITCH (1985)

Another Thanksgiving, another "turkey" edition of The Forgotten Movies. Unlike most other sites that decide to focus on "Thanksgiving Turkeys" and just end up re-hashing the same titles over and over again (BATTLEFIELD EARTH and SHOWGIRLS are really bad! Thank you, Ben Lyons.), I like to focus on movies that are truly, unquestionably, unmistakeably bad, but bad in ways that most other movies - be they good or bad - would be jealous of. Truth is, most "bad" movies are actually mediocre ones that don't have a lick of ambition about them, so when a film with certain pretensions flop endlessly like a whale on the beach, it's much more intriguing. It's also a bit more difficult to watch, partly because someone usually had a good idea or had a passion to say something and they simply couldn't do it right. Richard Brooks' FEVER PITCH, I think, is a perfect example of this, because Brooks was a smart filmmaker who could usually be counted on to make smart, slick, professional movies, and he was also a director who would bust his ass to go all-out on making films that would possibly be the ultimate word of that certain subject matter. Ambition was never his short suit, but a misplaced ambition, like the kind on display in FEVER PITCH, is pretty embarrassing to watch. A part of me wants to cut Brooks a break for this, but you can't watch this film and not think to yourself, "Just what the hell was he thinking?" If FEVER PITCH were any more of a car wreck, the prints would have been delivered to the theater in a tow truck.

Pretty much from the outset, you know FEVER PITCH is in trouble thanks to the tone that Brooks sets with his opening montage, set to narration spoken by star Ryan O'Neal that sounds like it comes out of a 40's Monogram rip-off of a 30's Warners social outrage picture. It tries for this hard-boiled, seen-it-all, DRAGNET approach that even in 1985 people would ask the person sitting next to them, "Does anyone really talk like that?" Unfortunately, this is the approach that Brooks takes throughout the entire picture, as most every character speaks like that, putting this film in a non-reality that is just way too out there. ''Gambling. Series. How many people gamble. How. Why.'' is but one example, and it keeps rambling on and on like that for the whole film. People talk in clichés all throughout FEVER PITCH that it becomes maddening, and very quickly in you're thinking, "Does Brooks truly expect us to take this seriously?" But then beyond the dialogue, it's an entire film full of clichés, one where every moment is maddeningly predictable (O' Neal's sportswriter turned gambling addict is writing a series about a gambler named "Mr. White" who is, unsurprisingly O'Neal himself) and laughably hokey; when O' Neal's daughter says, "I sure miss mommy", we're treated to a ridiculous flashback of how his wife died in a car crash while on her way to bail him out of a gambling debt. I mean, this thing is just stupid beyond belief.

What hurts here is that there's a good movie in here somewhere, or at the very least a good movie somewhere in Brooks' honest intentions. FEVER PITCH seems to know a thing or two about gambling (leading one to wonder just where Brooks' inspiration came from) and for 95% of its running time it has its heart in the right place about the subject. Someone could (and should) make a searing film about the subject, but when Brooks ends his picture by having O' Neal - having settled with loan shark Chad Everitt (in the film's one decent performance) - winning back all his debt in one night at the tables, you know this thing is not - what's the word? - good. It's quite possible this was a studio-imposed happy ending (though Brooks commanded enough respect in his career to have achieved final cut), but since this ridiculous is so much in line with the film that came before it, you have to assume that Brooks thought he knew what he was doing. Now, with all this said, I do feel the need to say that FEVER PITCH is also a very entertaining bad movie, and if you're indeed looking for a Thankgiving turkey then this is your cinematic Butterball. It does provide certain unique pleasures, such as the sight of the great Giancarlo Giannini sharing the same frame with Everett and William Smith (strangely enough, I know Quentin Taratino has expressed a certain admiration for it, and even screened it at his 2nd QT Fest back in 1998, but I don't know just what his approach is to this), but it's all still something of a shame. It's a head-scratcher, head-slapper of a motion picture that is out of time and out of place (I didn't even get to the weird Thomas Dolby score), and if it came from anyone else I would say give it a Golden Turkey award, but from the director of THE PROFESSIONALS, BITE THE BULLET, and IN COLD BLOOD, it truly does register as a "What the fuck?" kind of movie. But it does have to be seen to be believed, there's no question there.

1 comment:

Chris Poggiali said...

I love everything about this movie, ESPECIALLY the flashback. "She's HURT...she's HURT..." is right up there with "Oh god, oh man, oh god, oh man..." as one of the great O'Neal line deliveries. The recycling of Quincy Jones' DOLLARS theme is pretty funny, also.

"Toe truck" -- oh man, I'll play nice and let someone else have this one. :P