I’m one of the few moviegoers out there who was actually looking forward to seeing Fred Durst stalker-thriller/wacky John Travolta vehicle, The Fanatic. The fact that it’s already hailed as both a critical and financial failure — the biggest in Travolta’s career, apparently — only made me more excited to see it.
I couldn’t help but read the endless barrage of negative reviews surrounding this film. The consensus was that Travolta was the best thing about this movie — the caveat being that his performance isn’t necessary even good, it’s just the most enjoyable aspect of the movie. Seeing that he was playing someone obviously on the spectrum, one reviewer mercilessly stated that his mannerisms were straight out of some local theater’s production of Of Mice and Men. Ouch!
Similar to his Face-off costar, Nicolas Cage, Travolta is a sight to behold, especially when he’s allowed to go hilariously over the top. Like Cage, Travolta’s filmography is a mishmash of masterful to bizarre performances. For every Blow Out or Saturday Night Fever or Pulp Fiction, there is From Paris with Love, Swordfish, Wild Hogs and the mother of all bonkers John Travolta movies, Battlefield Earth. And like Cage, they both have a propensity for ridiculously obvious hair plugs.
In the last few years, however, Travolta hasn’t made many memorable turns. He failed in becoming the next aging action star in I am Wrath and his Gotti biopic, regardless of its good intentions, is notorious for having received a whopping 0 % on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s unlikely that Fred Durst of all people can revitalize his career. Judging by the backlash this film has received, this will obviously be perceived as another poignant failure of his career.
But after finally seeing it, I must admit that despite the film’s plentiful flaws, Travolta is its saving grace.
The following review will be spoiler-free.
Directed By: Fred Durst
Written By: Dave Bekerman and Fred Durst
Starring: John Travolta, Devon Sawa, Ana Golja, Jacob Grodnik, Kenneth Farmer, Marta González Rodin, Elle Matarazzo, and James Paxton
Moose (John Travolta) is one of the few citizens in LA who respects the myth of Hollywood, a true blue fan. In his spare time, he collects numerous cinematic memorabilia, particularly those starring horror star Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa). He makes his living by performing on the street as an English bobby, wearing a stereotypical mustache and the signature hat, hailing to any passing pedestrian, telling them about the stars that roamed these streets.
Moose is socially awkward, living by himself — he might possibly be on the spectrum as well. Moose is both ridiculed and respected by the local Hollywood outsiders. His only real friend is Paparazzi photographer Leah (Ana Golja), who sometimes gives him inside information on Hollywood events.
When Moose discovers that Hunter Dunbar is going to sign his autobiography in a local hobby shop, Moose stands in line for an hour, waiting and fantasizing about their meeting. When the time comes, however, Dunbar leaves in order to tend to some personal business. When Moose confronts him, he is rudely rebuffed by Hunter.
This rejection is the start of a dark journey as Moose’s obsession with receiving Dunbar’s signature and appreciation for him being a loyal fan begins to spiral wildly out of control.
Look, the fact that his film is directed by Fred Durst, the author of such painful songs such as ‘Nookie’ or ‘Rollin”, makes it very easy for me to hate this movie just for that reason. Even worse than that, Fred Durst has also been a vocal supporter of Putin’s Russia which is an entirely different can of worms.
Having said that, I’m also someone who likes to distance the artist from the art — though whether you can actually call Fred Durst an artist is debatable (you certainly can’t call him a musician). If you don’t make that necessary mental distance, it’s hard to enjoy any work of art. Therefore, despite my loathing for Durst’s music and politics, I had to give this film a chance on the basis of its filmmaking.
As a filmmaker, Durst’s filmography is nothing to get excited about. His feature debut, The Education of Charlie Banks, starring a young Jesse Eisenberg was well-received. He followed this up with the forgettable Ice Cube sports vehicle, The Longshots, and he apparently made an eharmony commercial after that.
The Fanatic is reportedly partly based on Durst’s own encounter with an obsessive fan, as well as being a remake of the 2016 Indian action-thriller, Fan, though apart from a few plot-twist similarities, the films barely resemble each other. After seeing this, I can’t say I feel the need to revisit his earlier work. That being said, I did quite enjoy watching The Fanatic.
Regardless of my misgivings of Durst, Travolta had nothing but kind words to say about him, going as far as calling him “stunningly gifted as a director.” These don’t seem like hollow words because whatever bad thing you can say about this film, it’s obvious that Travolta really cared about the character.
Still, it’s a full-blown bonkers Travolta performance. Through the decades, Travolta’s persona has changed quite a bit. In the seventies, he was unforgettable in the gritty disco drama, Saturday Night Fever, playing working-class dancer Tony Manero. Shortly afterward, he proved he could sing as well in the delightful cheese-fest known as Grease. Back then he became a young sex symbol.
The eighties were a mixed bag for Travolta. The highlight was probably his starring turn in Brian de Palma’s classic thriller, Blow Out. After starring in several embarrassing talking babies movies — I refuse to mention them by name — it was Tarantino who revitalized his career by offering him the role of a heroin-shooting hitman, Vincent Vega, in Pulp Fiction. The coolness he imbued in that film would continue in Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty (though not so much in its disappointing sequel, Be Cool).
Then there was a slew of questionable to entertaining choices. It’s apparent in his filmography that Travolta is certainly a charismatic performer, but he needs the right material, or better yet, a director who can use his skills appropriately.
Moose is certainly not going to be a role that Travolta will be remembered by but you have to commend Travolta’s commitment. He goes all out. He dons the ugliest hairpiece of his career — and that’s saying something — and walks around in clothes that only a child could approve of. His mannerisms are typical of someone on the spectrum, from the obsessive-compulsive character to the lack of eye-contact, through the exaggerated and overly excited expressions of emotion. Sometimes it’s played for laughs but admittedly, some of the laughs come from Travolta’s over-the-top line delivery.
Even so, as this belongs to the series of stalker-thrillers, Moose is not the bad guy. He’s not the temperamental psychotic fan, as seen in Misery or The Fan. The film sides with him, despite his questionable acts, which are never really borne out of malice. He’s just a person who needs the appropriate guidance and understanding. Especially during the end, you can’t help but root for poor Moose even when you know he has gone too far.
Travolta simply makes this movie. He’s likable and charming throughout, and if it weren’t for his performance, The Fanatic wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable. Perhaps some of his delivery brings out unintentional laughs, but there are moments of genuine heart and soul in the character of Moose.
The film’s ending is surprising, yet satisfactory, to say the least. But it isn’t without scrutiny. If you think about it long enough, the holes are hard to ignore. I’ll leave it for you to see for yourself, as it is “special” in all the right ways.
Needless to say, I was happy with how it ended.
Fred Durst is No Paul Schrader
The film’s biggest issue is the script, which lacks the necessary depth. While watching it, I couldn’t stop but think what Paul Schrader could have done with the material. Schrader’s large caliber of work consists of intricate character pieces. He basically birthed “the lonely man” film, starting with his script for Taxi Driver.
One character who especially suffers is Hunter Dunbar, who is ridiculously unlikable. There’s no reason for his aggressive animosity against Moose. This is probably done so we will sympathize with Moose but a good writer would have given us a reason for Dunbar’s twisted temperament. We understand that he’s divorced and cares for his son, but it’s just not enough. He just seems like an angry bully.
We get a brief glimpse of Moose’s childhood, which seems inspired by William Lustig’s grindhouse classic Maniac — which is also referenced in this movie as well. While I don’t necessarily need a comprehensive backstory for Moose, this brief glimpse of his origins is equally unsatisfactory. We understand that Moose has often been bullied in life, leading to some of his temper tantrums, but it doesn’t feel fully fleshed out.
The Fanatic also seems to want to make some statement on the shallow and cruel nature of Hollywood, but none of this feels authentic, as coming from someone inside the Hollywood system. For better statements about the rotten nature of Hollywood, watch Robert Altman’s classic The Player, Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened? Or David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars.
The Fanatic is not deserving of the hatred it has received from critics or at the box-office. It’s a brisk, entertaining watch, filled with some inspired choices (the score and the short animated interludes for instance).
As a character piece or as a glimpse of the vapid nature of Hollywood, this film lacks the necessary depth to do it justice. If only Paul Schrader would have helmed the script.
I also have to mention one particularly cringe-inducing scene, involving Hunter Dunbar rocking out with his son in his car to Limp Bizkit. “I use to listen to this back in the day. This is hot!” says Hunter to his son. Like really, Durst? This scene is so bad, it almost makes me want to give this film an F.
But if you want to see a full-blown insane John Travolta performance, this is a must-see. He makes the character of Moose compelling and extremely likable. I just wish Moose was in the star of a better film.
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