The Fanatic *

John Travolta's spiraling movie career hits rock bottom with this cringe-inducing stalker thriller, directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, that squanders a familiar but juicy premise with nails-on-a-chalkboard dialogue, one-dimensional characters and a pervasive lack of tension. Cancel this fan club membership.

Is it worth $10? No

To watch John Travolta chew the scenery in “The Fanatic” is to mourn the decline of a career that saw the star at the top of Hollywood's food chain on at least two occasions: During his “Saturday Night Fever”/”Grease” heyday and during his mid-1990s resurgence, courtesy of Quentin Tarantino and a spirited turn in “Pulp Fiction.” How appropriate, then, that the Oscar nominee's latest effort takes place in the city of angels' underbelly.

In this limp and misbegotten character study with tired genre flourishes, the brainchild of Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst, Travolta inhabits a role that, at least on the page, must have seemed an irresistible challenge for an actor who's not afraid of playing the heavy: Moose, a consummate movie fan with a bizarre silver-hued mullet/bowl cut hybrid and an obsession with horror staple Hunter Dunbar (“Final Destination's” Devon Sawa). Oh, and he's also on the special needs spectrum, though it's unclear whether he has autism or Asperger's. You get the idea.

The story, narrated with a flurry of clichés by Moose's paparazza buddy Leah (Ana Golja), kicks into gear when our fearless protagonist's favorite memorabilia store hosts a book signing for Dunbar. An impatient Moose follows the B-movie star when he briefly walks away in order to deal with his ex and their son. The interaction that ensues does not go the way Moose had hoped. Quite the contrary, he gets his li'l heart broken by his idol, who turns out to be, let's not mince words here, a dick.

Durst, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Bekerman, plants the germ of an intriguing subversion here. The victim in this oft-told scenario mostly behaves like the villain, and the aggressor comes across as a wounded soul with an unhealthy fixation. Problem is, the filmmakers don't have the chops to give the characters the layers they need to pull off this role reversal. So what could have played like a potent revisionist take on, say, “Single White Female” or Tony Scott's “The Fan” plays like a grade-Z undertaking that attempts to put a more character-driven spin on the stalker thriller by showing us what makes its central underachiever tick.

And Durst comes up short time after time, most crucially by letting Travolta run wild with the tics and overly studied body language. Before you actually learn about Moose's pathology, viewers are bombarded with the socially inept character's mannerisms: The way he rarely makes eye contact when he speaks, the way he rocks his body and forth. It's an indulgent actor's exercise of a performance that never feels lived-in. You're not so much cringing at Moose's actions as to how insufferable Travolta makes them feel.

The movie is kind of fuzzy when it comes to explain how the moped-riding Moose, a cut-rate Travis Bickle, is able to make ends meet. The only times you see him working, he's performing for tips on Hollywood Boulevard dressed up as an English bobby, complete with the stuffy cop's uniform, fake mustache and terrible accent. But those scenes are included mostly to introduce the pickpocketing duo Todd (Jacob Grodnik) and Slim (James Paxton, Bill Paxton's son). They taunt and bully Moose and make him cry, and that's about all there is to them.

Sawa, on the other hand, is slightly more successful at etching a portrait of showbiz fame that's curdled into disenchantment and contempt. It might be a one-note turn, but the former teen star hits that note with bruising efficiency.

Alas, neither Travolta nor Sawa are able to wrest free from the mold of the psycho narrative that Durst has trapped them in. Verbal threats are followed by brazen defiance, which is followed by physical retribution, which is followed by an escalation in an ongoing invasion of privacy. And then it becomes apparent that, even though the characters might be doing unpleasant things, the ugliness that takes over is coming from behind the camera.


And thus what comes across loud and clear in “The Fanatic” is not the cycle of co-dependency between screen talents and the throngs who worship at their feet (and have the potential of taking things too far), but Durst's exploitation of the subject to satiate his toxic worldview. The film ends with some soothing sweet talk, followed by a repellent jolt of ultraviolence. The showdown might give genre fanboys their blood-and-guts fix, but it also obliterates any hope that the movie would follow through on its exploration of the dysfunctional dynamic between Moose and Dunbar in anything but the most brutish way possible.

Durst adds salt to the wound by giving viewers a facile Psych 101 explanation for Moose's fixations that involves paternal neglect and an unsupervised diet of horror films. The director can't even be bothered to delve into the actual genre's rich history beyond weak references to “Night of the Living Dead” and Jason Voorhees. It aims to pay homage to horror without exhibiting any actual affection for it.

In addition, by positing Moose as an emotionally stunted victim of arrested development, Durst deprives the movie from the one element that would have at least not made it such a chore to sit through: sexual tension. Instead, we are subjected to a gallery of tropes that are lazy when they're not vile and mean-spirited. For a movie just shy of 90 minutes, this missed opportunity sure feels like a slog to endure.

“They say you should never meet your heroes,” solemnly intones Leah, who acts as the film's feeble conscience. If only “The Fanatic” had been made with someone who could really dig into what this stale phrase means, maybe that would have prevented it from stinking to high heaven, but the only thing it succeeds in doing is underscoring just how badly Travolta needs to reconnect with the actor he used to be.

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