Watching The Fanatic, a chill went down my spine as I was struck by a horrid sense of déjà vu. It was not because its premise is reminiscent of The Fan and Big Fan, though sure. It was because of the cringe-inducing collision of John Travolta’s too too much performance, with a suffocating and sloppy voiceover, and a behind-the-scenes MadLibs that makes this film’s very existence seem like a bad dream brought on by too much popcorn, cheap cigarettes, and Red Bull. In short, it reminded me of Gotti, a truly terrible Travolta vehicle I called “a crime against cinema.” Admittedly, The Fanatic isn’t as horrendous as Gotti, but that’s not for lack of trying.
Co-written and directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, The Fanatic stars Travolta as Moose, a 60-something man absolutely obsessed with movies. His particular fixation is on horror films, and his very favorites are those of Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa of Casper and Final Destination fame). Most days, Moose is happy to ride his scooter around Hollywood, haggling with a sketchy memorabilia salesman, cosplaying for cash on the Walk of Fame, and trash-talking “celebutards” with 20-something paparazza Leah (Ana Golja). But an unfortunate encounter with his personal hero sends Moose over the edge from loyal fan to lethal stalker.
Durst’s Hollywood is far from glamorous. His is a place of grimy back alleys, dingy pawnshops, and cluttered apartments that ought to be condemned. Its denizens are bottom-feeders, malevolent street magicians and pernicious pickpockets who prey on tourists, boundary-breaking paparazzi and manic fans who hunt celebrities for embarrassing photos or autographs they feel they are owed. Though Moose thinks his fandom is pure, he is yet another toxic element of this festering ecosystem. As chipper as he seems, Moose feels he’s entitled to Hunter’s time and attention. But his fan fantasies crash into Hunter’s real-life when the latter’s snarling ex-wife crashes a book signing. With the perfect chance to prove his devotion spoiled, Moose becomes obsessed with setting things right, or at least his warped version of “right.”
The Fanatic attempts to humanize idealized stars through exposing the complicated realities behind the movie posters and mega-watt smile, but it’s all cliches. Durst offers the audience a peek behind the curtain to see fame’s underbelly. Here is the shambles of Hunter’s marriage, his struggle to be an involved father to his son, and the stress that pushes him to medicate himself day and night. As Moose pushes into his life—thanks to Leah clueing him into an intrusive “star maps” app—he sees this too. Rather than realizing he’s overstepping or stalking, Moose single-mindedly uses his intrusions to force himself into Hunter’s life in a sequence that blends bits of Misery and Reservoir Dogs, and none-too-subtly.
Warning: This scene is insane. And not in a good way.
There’s Devon Sawa strapped to a bed, thrashing as John Travolta dances around him with a tank of gasoline, pouring its contents onto his belly while yelling, “Mr. Blonde! Mr. Blonde!” then briefly singing a bit of “Stuck in the Middle With You.” This is the level The Fanatic is working on. Travolta, whose career was resurrected by Quentin Tarantino, jaunts about poorly mimicking one of the filmmaker’s most iconic scenes for a cheap thrill.
And did I mention Moose is intellectually disabled? This too is handled with all the care of a bull in a china shop. Travolta’s performance is wincingly over the top, complete with flailing limbs, abrupt wailing, and an exceedingly uncomfortable accent. In the film, Moose’s disability is used as a cheap justification for his mercurial behavior and childish tantrums of violence and damning declarations of “You’re mean! YOU’RE MEAN!” But it also suggests a frankly offensive comparison between stalking fanatics and the intellectually disabled, which callously maligns the latter.
Aside from its tiresome clichés, lazy allusions, and crass theatrics, The Fanatic is crudely stitched together by a nagging narration. Despite this being Durst’s third feature film, there’s a shocking lack of coverage in the cinematography. Shots collide without visual logic. Sequences collide without flow. So—as with Gotti—here comes the labored voiceover to make sense of what is meandering and senseless. Thankfully, it’s not done by Travolta and his heinous accent this time.
From the start, the world-weary voice of Leah winds us through the tragedy of Moose and Hunter, scathingly describing Los Angeles as a “City of Bullshitters,” before confessing, “I live here too.” Though Leah is a minor character onscreen, she does a lot of speaking for Moose and his motivations in these droning intrusions. Perhaps this is meant to make up for Travolta’s “Simple Jack” hackneyed-ness or to otherwise brew empathy for the anti-hero Durst seems to relish tormenting in scenes of mounting ghoulishness. It’s a help, giving some desperately needed context and explanations to plot and motivations. However, it’s doing damage of its own with faux-insightful lines like, “They say you should never meet your heroes. Meeting them’s not so bad, just don’t get too close.” Not even this lame voiceover can plaster together an ending for this mess of a movie.
After a climax that is as vicious as it is confounding, Durst smacks some narration onto a slapdash sequence of animation to give The Fanatic a resolution that clearly didn’t make it into the can. Just at the moment where I bristled, “Is that it?” Up pops a scribbled picture of Moose and Leah, that clunkily sparks to life to explain what happens next for them. These drawings are set up in the opening title sequence, where they seemed a quirky way to introduce Moose’s view of Hollywood, but they’re used too haphazardly to give this device much credit.
The Fanatic is vexing on several fronts. For all its claims to be about the love of movies, it’s an astoundingly poorly made one with a shocking lack of awareness of film language and storytelling. Its thoughtless employment of an intellectually disabled character feels exploitative at best. Travolta’s performance is as bad as that haircut and as loud as his costumes. Essentially, it’s an ugly and bitter film, a travesty attempting to masquerade as a ruthlessly cynical exploration of fame and fandom. There might be a fascinating thriller to be made about fandom, which explores both the enveloping allure of it and the treacherous possessiveness that turns toxic. This ain’t it.
The Fanatic opens in theaters on August 30, and on Digital and On Demand on September 6.
Header Image Source: Quiver Distribution