Fanatic, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/29/19 14:32:37
Throughout his career, John Travolta has demonstrated a ability for picking projects that, to be extremely polite, could best be described as “deeply dubious.” This haphazard gift has occasionally landed him in great and iconic projects like “Saturday Night Fever,” “Blow Out” and “Pulp Fiction” but, more often than not, has mostly steered him towards projects so dubious that the infamous “Battlefield Earth” might not be the worst of the lot. And yet, to give Travolta his due, you will rarely see him simply going through the motions, even in projects that he must have known were going to be garbage within a day or two of the beginning of shooting. Take last year’s disastrous “Gotti,” for example. That cut-rate biopic that wanted to be the next “Goodfellas” but lacked the tension and gritty realism of “Johnny Dangerously” is as bad as anything that you will ever see in your life but man, there is not a single moment in it when Travolta, despite being wildly miscast in the title role, is not giving both the part and the film as a whole his all. It was almost admirable in a weird way, even though the sheer spectacle of it all made one wonder what his career would be like today if he put that much energy into electing material that wasn’t so transparently awful in the first place.The latest example of the bizarre schism between Travolta’s taste in scripts and the energy he pours into the roles that he selects, presumably via a process involving darts and a blindfold, is “The Fanatic.” On the one hand, this low-rent celebrity stalker thriller is as awful as can be in virtually every conceivable way—it is painfully derivative, morally and ethically dubious, contains zero insight into the subject at hand and is executed in such a clunky and haphazard manner that it cannot even rise up to the extremely low bar of quality that one might normally associate with anything connected with the phrase “A Fred Durst Film.” And yet, despite the fact that this is the kind of rancid project that top stars pay people to keep them as far away from as humanly possible, Travolta not only agreed to take part but indeed throws himself into it wholeheartedly. The result is pretty much a cinematic car crash but Travolta commits himself so completely to the cause that his performance, much like his character, cannot be ignored, no matter how much you may try to do so.
Travolta plays Moose, a socially maladjusted man-child who somehow makes his living by taking pictures with tourists on Hollywood Boulevard while dressed as a London bobby. Moose’s real job, however, is being a movie superfan, the kind who constantly mistakes the recitation of trivia as making conversation and who spends what little money he has on trinkets and memorabilia that he can hopefully get autographed. His favorite celebrity, the one he is completely obsessed with, is horror-action star Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa), and with the aid of his only friend, paparazzo Leah (Ana Golja), he crashes a party that he believes Hunter will be at with stuff to sign and is immediately tossed out of the place. Later, it turns out that Hunter will be doing a signing at Moose’s favorite memorabilia shop but just as Moose gets to the head of the line, the event is abruptly ended. Upset at not getting his moment with his favorite celebrity, Moose, with the inexplicable help of Leah, finds out where Hunter lives and begins turning up there in the hopes of finally getting that precious autograph. Needless to say, this plan does not go well and things quickly spiral out of control in increasingly obsessive and violent ways.
On the surface, “The Fanatic” would seem to be an ideal moment for this particular moment in pop culture history when ordinary fandom has, thanks in large part to social media, mutated into a much uglier form based in equal parts self-delusion and self-entitlement in which those obsessives now feel that the objects of their worship owe them whatever they want, whether it is a like on Twitter or autographs on a dozen different posters, and woe unto those who refuse. This is a subject that most people in Hollywood can presumably relate to and it has been said that Durst was inspired to make this film by a real-life encounter along these lines. This material could be handled in any number of interesting ways—as bloodcurdling horror, intense drama or social satire to name just a few—but Durst and co-writer Dave Bekerman don’t seem to have any idea of how to deal with it tonally and instead let it switch between the three approaches I have mentioned almost at random and never at the right time. There are times when it seems to by deliberately trying for a sort of Grand Guignol-tinged overt campiness (especially in the deeply demented last 20 minutes) and times when it wants to be taken way too seriously for its own good. Whatever the approach, the results are never anything but insultingly simple-minded when they aren’t being borderline offensive.
What is probably the worst thing about “The Fanatic” is the way that Durst takes a potentially incendiary premise for a film and then somehow manages to render it completely inert. As I mentioned earlier, Durst was inspired to make this film after a real-life incident and I suspect that his two leads could have easily supplied him with stories of their own as well. And yet, the whole thing has a weirdly anonymous feel to it that never once has any sense of a true-to-life experience to it—the closest thing it gets to a personal touch is a cringe-worthy moment when Hunter is listening to Limp Bizkit with his son and rhapsodizing about listening to them back in the day. Beyond that, the film just feels assembled from any number of other and mostly better films involving obsessed fans going around the proverbial bend—“The King of Comedy,” “Fade to Black,” Misery” and both movies named “The Fan,” to name a few—but Durst does so little with them that by the end, you want to revoke both his director’s license and his Netflix password.
And yet, there at the center of it all is Travolta, delivering a performance so outsized and out there that it feels at times as if he is channeling Nicolas Cage as he did so brilliantly a couple of decades ago in “Face/Off.” My guess is that over the years, Travolta has encountered many a Moose-like fan and he has them down to a T here, from the ghastly sort-of mullet atop his head to his halting manner of speaking to his complete lack of anything resembling social graces or common dignity, especially when he is denied whatever he wants the moment he wants it. And yet, while the film as a whole is as cruel to Moose as the majority of the other characters are (especially in the insinuation that people who are on the autism spectrum, which Moose is clearly meant to be seen as, are ticking time bombs just waiting to go off), Travolta does manage to somehow work in a few moments of sympathy for him amidst the scenery-chewing excesses. The performance may not be “good” in the traditional sense—it will not make anyone forget his great work in films like “Blow Out” and “Pulp Fiction”—but it does contain a weird sort of magnetism to it that cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, even this ultimately works against the movie since Travolta ends up displaying far more charisma playing an uber-nebbish than Devon Sawa is able to muster as the big-shot Hollywood superstar. Consider just how barely-there Sawa is throughout, you can’t help but wonder if “The Fanatic” might have been better if the two had switched roles. (This wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch for Sawa, who famously played an obsessed fan in the video for Eminem’s “Stan.”)On second thought, it probably wouldn’t, especially if Durst were still at the helm. This is an ugly and oftentimes idiotic stab at a psychological thriller that completely fails to deliver any of the elements that those words imply. It doesn’t even work as camp because even though Travolta’s performance is filled with moments likely to become Internet memes, the rest of it is way too ugly and self-serious to inspire even inadvertent laughter. At the same time, Travolta’s performance is almost—[i]almost[/i]—worth the price of admission, partly for the sheer weirdness of it and partly because of the conviction that he brings to it. If anyone else involved with the film had made even a fraction of the effort that Travolta has, “The Fanatic” might been something more than it ultimately is—an anemic little sprat of a movie destined that even the most obsessed fans of the star or the director might give a pass to this weekend.
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