Thursday, September 5, 2019

Reserved Seating: THE FANATIC

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who order strawberry milkshakes at bars.

Rob: Welcome back to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: We’re forgoing our customary “Discoveries of the Month” edition for August because, frankly, we have more important business to handle. We’re talking about The Fanatic, the new John Travolta thriller from co-writer/director Fred Durst (yes, that one). Travolta stars as Moose, a lonely autistic man who spends his time between LA street performances obsessing over the work of his favorite actor, Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa). Given Moose’s interest in collecting Dunbar props, autographs, and other paraphernalia, his friend Leah (Ana Golja) installs a Star Maps app on his phone that gives Moose access to Dunbar’s personal address. As you might expect, this was a really great idea! Moose is totally reasonable about this new information, respecting Dunbar’s personal boundaries and making no inappropriate or violent efforts to get close to him. Wait, I’m lying.

The Fanatic is capital-P Problematic. It’s ugly and mean-spirited, laced with self-serious voice-over narration and animated interstitial sequences that betray its complete lack of self-awareness. Durst and co-writer Dave Bekerman seem to have Google searched their way through complex social topics and filmmaking techniques, producing something so amateurish that it’s almost endearing. They’re like high school jocks writing poetry about how hard it is to be popular. It’s a sight to see. Holding the thing together, though, is John Travolta, who delivers a committed and engaging “autistic man” performance straight out of 1984.

Adam, we have a lot of work to do. Let’s get started.
Adam: I really like this movie in ways I can’t defend, although I’d make the case I’m not enjoying The Fanatic just ironically. I’ve been grading VOD Travolta movies on a curve because it’s pointless to say something like Trading Paint, The Forger, or The Fanatic aren’t as good as Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Pulp Fiction. The film industry has betrayed many leading (wo)men of our youth, and while aging actors in the ‘70s would end up in horror (e.g. Fred Astaire in Ghost Story or Gregory Peck in The Omen), nowadays these folks star in direct-to-video or VOD fare. I’m past the point of making fun of them for being in such silly movies. Many of these actors just want to act or are not interested in using their craft for a tiny role in a blockbuster that has no real use for them. That aside, I agree with you that The Fanatic is problematic. The thing is (and I’m speaking only in movie terms, not in real-life terms) it’s so problematic that it becomes almost not problematic. The Fanatic would be more offensive if I had any inkling that Fred Durst had clarity of vision of his fever dream of a movie. There’s a scene in The Fanatic where Devon Sawa’s character stops the movie cold to put Limp Bizkit on the radio so he can effuse praise to how great Limp Bizkit is. That’s like the movie giving you permission to not take Durst seriously. He loves himself. He’ll be fine. Words will never hurt him. Most of my issues with the film (there are some, but they don’t really matter against my enjoyment of the movie) are based on filmmaking choices by Durst such as wooden narration, The Room-level supporting performances (that’s either the director’s fault or the casting director's) or dialogue decisions. But if that wasn’t in The Fanatic, I might like the movie less. All the ingredients together make for a delicious stew of schlock.

Rob: I want to go back to what you said about the movie being so problematic that it stops being problematic. I totally agree, which is why I said it’s almost endearing. Despite my serious misgivings about Moose’s characterization and treatment, it’s important to appreciate the fact that Durst simply doesn’t know any better. He genuinely thinks he crafted a compelling character, and Travolta’s performance is so dedicated that we have to appreciate their commitment to the collective bit. Like The Room, Durst’s film begs far more questions than it answers: How does Moose afford that apartment? Why is his best friend 22 years old? I don’t want to spoil things with more examples, but you get the idea.

Adam: Objectively, I did like Travolta and Sawa’s performances. Sawa is an actor I have much more familiarity with as a child actor than a grown-up actor, so his performance here was impressive (I’ll stop short of saying revelation). I think he’s good at modulating between being a douchebag and a guy who’s ashamed that he’s a douchebag. He also seems to know exactly what movie he’s in and stays on the line needed for camp. Travolta, on the other hand, is my boy. Fifty percent of me is sad for him because he was (twice) at such great heights in his career and this is Rory Calhoun in Motel Hell business he’s doing in The Fanatic. The other 50 percent of me is so beyond fascinated with his current output, and this performance as Moose especially, that I want to follow this stargate to the infinite and the great beyond. Travolta is always 100% committed in a performance, no matter what the movie, and he goes all in as Moose. He’s running on a tightrope, falling into the net, and then running even faster back on the tightrope. I can feel the notes on every page of his script in this performance. He makes so many choices. He doesn’t judge Moose at all and is in a full state of being, like Jim Carrey playing Andy Kaufman. There are moments and choices made by Travolta that are incredible (I’m thinking specifically of his defensiveness after being emotionally wounded -- which he is several times in this movie). It’s brave acting that’s so open to ridicule it makes me want to do nothing but defend it. God bless the acting career of John Travolta. It’s the most human journey of the 20th and 21st century.
Rob: This is what really stands out for me, too. You joked over text that several actors have gone the DTV route with a certain degree of disdain (Cusack, Cage, etc.), but Travolta is using it to take chances and elevate his game. I don’t like The Fanatic, but I can’t disagree with that. If he’s going to do this, why not get weird with it?

Adam: I also had the benefit of hearing Travolta being interviewed for The Fanatic and it put his goal for the film in better context. He said (I’m paraphrasing) that Moose and Hunter are not bad people, but the timing is off to their interaction. Under other circumstances, their meeting could have been a really nice thing for both men. Neither man has ill intent at the heart of the matter, but the circumstances of their first interaction causes such pain and confusion for both that all Moose can do is exacerbate the problem when, in his mind, he just wants to make amends. Hunter, on the other hand, escalates out of fear from not knowing where Moose is coming from. The two men are so dug-in by their emotions that they can’t hear each other/understand where the other guy is coming from.

Rob: It had to be frustrating for Travolta to put this kind of work in, to visualize that complex dynamic and use it to aid his performance, and then to have the final film so spectacularly fail in communicating any of that. I’m not going to deny that I found Moose offensive, but that’s more the writing than the performance, and I also have to recognize that my personal experience as a parent and teacher of autistic children is coloring my perception. The Fanatic owes no debt to reality as long as internal character consistency is maintained. Travolta pulls that off.
Adam: Yeah, I’m not going to debate if you (or anyone else) finds the performance offensive. We all bring different things to movies and if your gut says it’s offensive, then it is (to you) because it offended you. I’m getting into a gray area here, but I think one of Travolta’s sons had autism, so I wonder if he just considered his work as playing autism without comment or subtext. I’m not sure. I feel uncomfortable talking about this because I’m not qualified to do so. I’d like to believe his intent was sincere. It does beg the question: why make Moose on the spectrum if the endgame was to make this a stalker thriller? Couldn’t he have just been an immature adult?

Rob: I pushed us off topic with the autism thing, so let me just be clear: There are absolutely people in the world like Moose. What offended me wasn’t the performance, but the film’s treatment of him as a character. Short of a brief flashback, it makes no attempt to humanize him and resorts to easy stereotypes as causes for his “crazy” behavior. Leah and Dunbar treat Moose like a freak because Durst and Beckerman believe he is one. That’s why I said the portrayal is out of the ‘80s: It’s not exactly woke. This wouldn’t be as bad if Durst hadn’t portrayed Dunbar as the cool guy: He loves his son, his ex-wife is callus and selfish, and his attractive maid won’t have sex with him anymore. None of his problems are his fault. He’s clearly Durst’s surrogate character, and I get the sense that he was inspired to write this script after a fan hugged him in a Starbucks, or something. It’s all just very childish.
Adam: Durst - I think - wants to build Moose into the next Victor Crowley (notice the first end credit). The battle between these two visions (Travolta’s and Durst’s) makes for this uncomfortable tension in the movie that’s fascinating. It’s like if The Fan (1996) was brought to you by the team that made Sleepaway Camp.

Rob: That’s a great way to put it. I know I’m coming down hard on The Fanatic, but I really did find it to be a fascinating and entertaining watch. Like all the great bad movies, it’s driven by artists with a real vision and point of view. In this case, as you said, those visions all clashed in a weird and cringe-worthy way. But it’s one hell of a curiosity.

Adam: It certainly is. It’s quirky in ways most movies aren’t in 2019 and for that it seems commendable for better or worse. What are your top 10 Limp Bizkit songs?

Rob: Don’t do this to me. I thought we were friends.

Adam: Haha. Next week we’ll be back with our last baseball review of 2019, Fear Strikes Out, starring Anthony Perkins. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

8 comments:

  1. Wait, WHAT!? The Fan via Sleepaway Camp directed by jock-rock el capitano Fred "did it all for the nookie" Durst... Consider me sold AND at least Travolta never seems to be phoning it in so more power to him I say! :)

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  2. I have been waiting for this movie for awhile now. I am huge fan of the schlock Travolta has been putting out for some time now. I watched Life on the Line and The Poison Rose recently. I was in awe of how boring each movie was but they each had so much drama that didnt know what to do with all the baggage. Bring it on!!

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  3. Bruce Willis, Travolta, Cage were legit some of the biggest stars in the world. Do they need money? I'll give Travolta this he tries in his direct to video schlock and doesn't sleepwalk in it like Willis or Cage. Cage will try sometimes see Mandy but Willis is usually in a coma. Cusack is barely awake in his VOD movies but he never was a huge star. I didn't hate Fanatic (hated the voice-over). It's watchable and Travolta commits 100% like Adam said. It's worth a watch for Travolta.

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    1. Yeah that voiceover is troublesome for sure

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  4. Boy, the careers of Cage and Willis went downhill like no others. Travoltas was dead for decades and only resurrected by Pulp Fiction for a limited time.

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  5. RLM did a 40 min take on Fanatic that's pretty good

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  6. Out of interest my favourite fanatic film is Joe Spinnel in The last horror film which while Maniac was mentioned in this film but not the last horror film which is closer to The Fanatic


    I don't know how I feel. Same as you I questioned did he need to be Autistic? It did not add anything that helped the film and It made the film more uncomfortable to watch, I think I understood the premise in theory but on film I felt it did not come across as Fred thought it would. It's a strange one. I am really glad films like this get made though


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