Stake Me Out at the Ball Game

Robert De Niro destroys his batty average in The Fan

The Fan marks Robert De Niro's fourth stalker. He's Gil Renard, a San Francisco knife salesman whose avocation is his twisted, fanatical enthusiasm for the Giants. Gil is especially fixed on a new addition to the team's roster, a power hitter named Bobby Rayburn who has recently led the Braves to a championship, and for whom the Giants have controversially paid a cool $40 million. Gil considers this a good deal all around.

You probably can guess where the film goes from here. It generates a certain sordid tension getting there, but it's not a sort that I'd call entertaining, and as a psychological study, it's sophomoric and vaguely offensive.

Two of De Niro's previous pathological pests, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, were so vividly portrayed that they inevitably took on the quality of heroes--we subversively began to root for them. It was a testament to the power of De Niro's acting, and to the skill of Martin Scorsese, who directed both movies. Yet the filmmaker and the actor never forgot, even if we did, that their alienated protagonists weren't heroes, they were dangerous and pathetic by-products of modern society and pop culture ubiquity.

But by stalker role number three, Max Cady in Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear, Scorsese and De Niro began to romanticize their maniac deliberately. A straightforward villain in the 1962 original, Max became, in Scorsese's version, sort of an angel of transformation--he was there to shock the smug, satisfied liberal lawyer (Nick Nolte) out of his deluded sense that he was a good, uncorrupted, civilized man.

This might have worked as troubling, self-doubting subtext, but Scorsese kept it heavy-handedly on the surface--he made it text--and, as a result, De Niro came off ersatz. His Max was scary, sort of, but unfocused and unsatisfying as a character.

This is even more true of Gil Renard in The Fan. The lucidity and precision of De Niro's best performances are absent here--he seems to be feeding off the tics and gestures that worked for him before. At one point he turns to the camera, head erect, half-smile on his face, and you can feel the audience collectively think, "You talkin' to me?" It may be that he can no longer avoid the association, but he doesn't seem to want to avoid it.

The Fan also seems overtly to request our sympathy for Gil, who keeps reminding everyone that he was once a player himself, but never made "the Bigs." He believes in baseball's mythic purity, its transcendental importance. He also loses his job because he's a perfectionist, and doesn't believe in the cheap knives he sells. The movie keeps trying to palm Gil's rap off on a degraded society in which perfectionism has no place.

The Fan is never more poignant than in the scene where Gil gets fired, not because of his plight--he's not convincing enough as a character for us to worry about him--but because of the stunted, juvenile sensibility that produced the scene. It's unmistakably linked to Death of a Salesman--Gil speaks of his father, who founded the company, and his boss (Dan Butler) cuts him off with "your father made beautiful knives, but he wasn't a businessman. Neither are you."

The scene even ends with the boss leaving Gil alone in the office. But Gil is post-Tarantino Willy Loman; he's a Little Man and an American dreamer and a failure, but he also knows how to kick butt and take names. This dimension of the story is Death of a Salesman rewritten by a seventh grader who felt bad for Willy and fantasized a revenge for him. One could almost see this as a film for stalkers--a tale of stalker empowerment.

Some cheesy attempts are made to create a parallel between Bobby and Gil--both are unamicably divorced, both are separated from their sons, both are criticized on the job for being perfectionists. But unlike Gil, Bobby loses his faith, and therein lies what director Tony Scott and screenwriter Phoef Sutton (adapting a novel by Peter Abrahams) consider the heavy irony of the plot.

When Bobby goes into a slump, Gil takes hideous action to correct what he regards as the problem--Bobby can't wear his lucky number from Atlanta, because a Giants teammate (Benicio del Toro) won't give it up. Bobby gets the number, and promptly starts jerking them out of the park again, but when Gil at last gets a chance to talk with him, Bobby (unaware, of course, of what Gil has done) doesn't credit his revival to the number--instead, he says, "I just stopped caring." He next utters, to Gil's ears, anathema: He refers to his job as "just a game." Gil responds by kidnaping Bobby's son. "Now do you care?" he gleefully asks Bobby over the phone, through that croquet-wicket De Niro sneer he's used so often before.

Gil's ransom demand is for Bobby to hit a home run for him during a night game. Essentially, this climax is a sicko version of The Babe Ruth Story--this time, the kid whose fate rides on the slugger knockin' one outta the park is the slugger's own, and his dependence isn't figurative, it's vital. It's hard not to sense a sleazy lesson underneath it all--that somehow Bobby, the spoiled and overpaid slugger, needed this, needed to be jolted awake and taught to care again.

It should be said that Wesley Snipes does very well as Bobby Rayburn; he makes the connection with the audience that De Niro fails to. Snipes can be a bit stiff and dreary in macho action roles, but when, as here, he gets the chance to play some raw nerves, he's immediately engaging, and he shows a surprisingly large emotional range. Several other actors do sharp, helpful work--Ellen Barkin brings her feral friskiness to the smallish role of a sports reporter, and Charles Hallahan has a few strong minutes as Gil's scared, befuddled old teammate.

In terms of talent, The Fan's director Scott is to Scorsese about what Roger Corman is to Orson Welles. This needn't be entirely pejorative--great though Welles and Scorsese indisputably are, both have made hollow, ponderously overthought work, and pop wise guy though he is, Corman is usually inventive and fun. When working from lively scripts, Scott has done amusing work, too--the first half of The Hunger, for instance, and most of True Romance and Crimson Tide. But Scott's headlong, frenzied visual shorthand has lent itself with equal frequency to such distilled evil as Top Gun. The Fan is of the latter category. It's such a shoddy, charmlessly eager-to-please penny dreadful that it doesn't even work as camp.

Indeed, it would be unworthy of even adverse notice if it weren't for the presence of De Niro as star. He's a great actor, and even the worst and laziest work of a great actor deserves study. What can I say, I'm a fan.

The Fan:
Directed by Tony Scott; with Robert De Niro, Wesley Snipes, Ellen Barkin,
Patti D'Arbanville-Quinn, John Leguizamo, Benicio del Toro, Dan Butler, Chris Mulkey, Charles Hallahan and Kurt Fuller.

Rated

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