There are many aspects of a movie which must be addressed and explored for the purposes of this review column. Each movie must be examined from multiple angles. In the course of this analysis I might be compelled to give away certain details of the film. However, I dont want my spoilers to deter people from reading other parts of the review which may assist them in deciding whether or not to see the movie in the first place. So, instead of composing articles in the more conventional journalistic format, every review will be divided into four or five categories that will address different issues. If any of the categories contain information about the movie which could spoil the viewing then I will put a note with an asterisk under the heading of that category and the reader can proceed onto the next categories.
The four primary categories are: The Tzniut factor, which will address the appearance and actual presentation of the movie with respect to the Halachic realms code of human etiquette and behavior, The Shylock factor, which will directly examine any presentation of Jews or Judaism in the film for accuracy and/or positive versus negative tone; The Theme factor, which will address the major themes of the film and their educational and/or inspirational value; and The Fable factor, which will address the possible use of some aspect of the film, or the film as a whole, as a parable for some issue in Jewish thought. Of course not all movies will contain the Shylock or Fable factors. Finally, there will occasionally be a further point that I might want to emphasize maybe something about the filmmakers or a small detail of the film which I feel needs to be spotlighted this will be featured in a fifth category: The X Factor.
With these structural elements in mind let us move to the review itself.
Fever Pitch: A Homerun Movie that Falls Short of the Wall
The Tzniut Factor:
Romance alone poses its threat to the Tzniut-wary individual in that, as we move farther and farther from the clenches of 1950s morality, romance is becoming a scantily-clad synonym for sex. Similarly, the comedic genre has, of late, infused its every escapade with jokes guaranteed to elicit a blush (we hope). So, when presented with the offspring of romance and comedy, the romantic comedy, the Halachic sense of propriety should be all hands to battle stations. Except, ironically enough, the romantic comedy is often the tamest of the three genres; yes it has romance, but the comedy cools the steam, and, yes it has comedy, but the romance softens the blow. This phenomenon is in full form in the latest romantic comedy, Fever Pitch. While there are a few questionable scenes and punchlines, nothing ever reaches the fever pitch that would make this movie obviously unacceptable. Obviously being the operative word.
In the course of this film, the viewer is presented with the model of a normal relationship between two young professionals. A few years ago the film would have included their first sexual encounter in order to inform the viewer that, without doubt, this relationship has a physical component. A few years before that, there would have been no sex and the audience would have had to assume that the chaste pair on screen would remain chaste until the final reel and the wedding vows. In Fever Pitch there is no introduction to the sexual part of their relationship the benefit of this is that there are no really graphic scenes. The problem is subtle but unquestionably important: As society has become more promiscuous, there has been less need for promiscuity to be highlighted in film. The result is movies, like Fever Pitch, where the details on the screen are not inherently inappropriate but the reality comprised of these details relies upon principles that are entirely counter the laws of Tzniut.
Now, I know that the world outside Halacha has details to it like pre-marital sex, casual flings which include casual sex and many other forms of sex without the requisite setup demanded by Jewish law, but I still assumed, whatever movie I went to see, that nobody on screen would be having sex unless I was told as much explicitly. It is with Fever Pitch that I have learned otherwise. It took a romantic comedy to reveal to me what must now be taken for granted when dealing with Hollywood and that is the hidden power of the romantic comedy. Neither the romance or the comedy can tackle this disclosure because neither one has the intention of mirroring the real world. The romance is a heightened look at one small part of life which is often tinged with the fantastical and always a bit distorted. Similarly, the pure comedy is rarely life as it is (think of the damage our cities would sustain if physical comedy was a regular occurrence in the day-to-day lives of the average citizen); it is life with the absurdity magnified and the laughable center stage at all times. The romantic comedy has both components but it, as a diluted combination, is much more realistic, in general. And, so, it, of the three, is the only one with the capacity to assume the general axioms of life and live according to them.
So, what exactly is the final conclusion about Fever Pitch? Is it Tzniut or not? The truth is it is both. Fever Pitch is not the cleanest movie Ive ever seen (that was probably Sesame Streets Follow that Bird) but it does stick to its plot consistently without pausing too often for overt sexuality, nudity or bad language. The female characters in the movie dont always dress according to the no knees, no elbows, no collar bones law but Drew Barrymore tends to (with the notable exception of her nude scene in Charlies Angels) dress surprisingly more tastefully than the average Hollywood princess in all her films. Jimmy Fallon, despite the danger that comes with casting an ex-SNLer, keeps his jokes quiet in temperament. However, and this a big however, the movie involves characters living lives by a code that is very different than what Halacha dictates and, most crucially, Fever Pitch, unlike other similar movies, does not do anything overtly enough as to warrant a blip on the radar. So, see it but recognize that romance and comedy dont mean the same thing to Barrymore and Fallon as they did to Yaacov and Rachel. In fact, speaking as a baseball ignoramus, I got the baseball references better than the development of the love story until I finally realized that, to understand, I had to keep reminding myself as to how different Sinai and Sinai-less lives really are. The bonus to this was that, when something occurred in the movie which is Halachically forbidden but which is so common that I have dismissed it since I was a child (a man kissed a woman who was obviously in Niddah and while it is true that this is not a problem for non-Jews, it does pose a problem for those of us who like to imagine living through the story), I, for the first time in a long time, consciously noticed it. And, maybe thats how it should be.
The Theme Factor:
The major theme of Fever Pitch is obvious: Love conquers all. Even the curse of the Bambino, as it turns out. Specifically, in this movie, love has to conquer the fact that the woman is a workaholic and the man is a Red Sox fan. Before we continue, can I just comment on the complexity of this comparison? There was a point in history when, for the majority, employment was a necessity. If one happened to like ones job then that was a nice perk but a job was generally about a commitment. Conversely, my impression of sports, and correct me if Im wrong, is that it was always about a game. Now, suddenly in this movie, the sports fan feels a commitment that goes way beyond a relaxing pastime and the employee feels a sense of enjoyment that makes her job appear to be an elaborate, albeit intense, game. Which leads to the valid question raised by this movie: What is so pathetic about a diehard Red Sox fan? You might be tempted to say that the Red Sox fan is a special case he supports a team which seems to only be great at losing. However, now that the Red Sox have won the World Series (and the sky was miraculously pig-free) are the fans vindicated? Are they any less pathetic?
It is an overstated fact but it is imperative to bear in mind that fan is short for fanatic. This movie is about fanaticism, fanaticism at work and fanaticism at play. In short, this movie is about love conquering fanaticism. I would like to suggest that this is not only an halachically acceptable concept but an halachically mandated one. (Stay with me for a minute.) Jewish culture has always had an unusual perspective towards sex and love in the pantheon of Western religions. Whereas other religions, in their pursuit of closeness to God, have glorified abstinence and asceticism, Judaism has always encouraged an equalized approach to the physical nature of our existence. A person should get married, have children, have a career, and balance, in all ways, the active aspects of Jewish law with the theoretical realm of study. In many ways, the road to this equilibrium is exactly what is explored by the main characters of Fever Pitch.
Of course, the movies approach to the dilemma is much more emotional than intellectual, whereas one would expect the exact opposite in Halachic decision making. Also, often movies play with the love conquers all theme to encourage a sense that every obstacle can be overcome in a relationship if the two people love each other. This interpretation does not coincide with Jewish thought, which would argue that love cannot conquer intermarriage, homosexual or incestual love, or any other violations of Jewish law. Still, the sense that career and sports teams can be areas of compromise is in keeping with a Jewish perspective on prioritization. As well, Fever Pitch does not proceed in the popular direction in regard to love; the characters cannot simply say they love each other and, wrapped in the power of those words, continue unharmed. Choices must be made that are difficult and each character must come to a realization about the true value of their obsessions.
Especially in the Modern Orthodox world, the question of balance between two powerful forces is one that can, not only be understood but, can truly be appreciated for the conflict that it is. Fever Pitchs theme, although couched in a seemingly shallow and humorous examination of athletic fanaticism, is an excellent, albeit simplified, examination of the problem. Toward the solution, every Jew must put the popcorn away and speak to a Rav because Fever Pitch is, after all, a romantic comedy and those prefer to end on a sweet note, not a profound one.
The Fable Factor:
The most interesting metaphor to be found in Fever Pitch is the one alluded to in the previous section, the question of obsession. The Red Sox, as a team that appeared doomed to consistent defeat, and the Red Sox fan, as a person doomed to forever witness said defeat, are icons of both faith and stupidity in our modern lexicon. But which is the deserved title? Ignoring for a moment that all of these speculations are a moot point since the previous years World Series, is the faith of the Red Sox fan in his team a good thing or a bad thing?
The parallel Im moving towards should be fairly obvious but let me state it explicitly with all its components. We have a situation in which a set of miracles were performed, i.e. The Red Soxs historic winning streak prior to the curse. This was enough to ensure the loyalty of the followers even after life took a turn for the worse. Years of despair and defeat followed and, although the Red Sox remained, the glory of yesteryear could not be recovered. Still, throughout the many decades of humiliating losses, those who had faith in the Red Sox still believed. Even after the generation that had actually witnessed the Red Soxs victorious years died out, the subsequent generations stuck with their team and did so with a vengeance hardly matched by winning teams fans. Finally, after years and generations of hope, the Red Sox won the World Series and those who had seemed to be always rooting for a certain loser were vindicated in their devotion.
I.e. Jews witness Exodus, Sinai and early historys surplus of miracles and golden years; Jews lose temple and prophecy God disappears from sight; Jews suffer centuries of persecution and spiritual darkness but never desert their Faith; Messiah comes, saves the Jews and, maybe, just maybe, the Red Sox win the World Series again. Are Orthodox Jews pathetic? Are we stupid? Is our faith a waste of time? Up until last year, what really distinguished us from those sorry souls who sat calmly in Fenway Park waiting for a curse to dissipate? While it is true that we have the word of God that He will bring the Messianic age whereas God never promised that the Red Sox would win the World Series ever again, is this enough of a distinction to entirely separate the faithful Jew from the faithful sports fan? Is a promise enough to vindicate faith when the belief that the promise exists is a matter of faith, as well?
Faith is a strange thing and often seems, to the naked eye, to blur easily with foolishness. To understand what we believe it is important to constantly ask ourselves why we believe. We must be able to have an answer to what distinguishes us from a diehard Red Sox fan and the answer cannot simply be about sports versus theology. Fever Pitch examines some of the reasons why one man lives his life around the baseball schedule. The questions he must face about his priorities act as an important metaphor for the questions one must answer about ones own faith. Why can we survive horror after horror, holocaust after holocaust and still show up to each of the major games in our religion? Are we merely obsessed? Delusional? Naive?
As well, the parallel I have outlined serves another important purpose. The next time someone questions the intelligence of faith and you get prepared to hand them a propaganda answer that you picked up in grade school or to dismiss them as just not getting it remember the Red Sox and their fans and your reaction to Jimmy Fallons character in Fever Pitch. Both sides just got a lot more complicated. Because, in our case, we arent simply dealing with a curse and a sports game were dealing with the complex truth of existence.
Fever Pitch has a lot to offer both in its far-reaching metaphorical ramifications and in the content of the film, itself. If this review was intended for a secular audience I would no doubt say: see it; it is an excellent romantic comedy that pushes the sugar-coated boundaries of that genre to the limit. However, in light of my audience, while I think Fever Pitch has much to offer, I do not think anything it provides is worth the time spent watching it. This movie is not educational enough that I can, in good conscience, offer it as an acceptable replacement for other intellectual pursuits. Still, if bittul zman is not a concern because one has decided to devote two hours to relaxation or a mental break, then Fever Pitch is a wonderful choice as a mostly Halachically acceptable entertainment (of course, double check with your posek before viewing) and it does provide, as previously outlined, food for thought that is most definitely worthy of consideration. In short, it is not a movie to study and ponder but it is one to enjoy and muse about. Almost like an afternoon at the ballpark.