You don't need to be a soccer fan to warm to "Fever Pitch," an enjoyable, goodhearted romantic comedy centered on a London football nerd and his g.f. problems. Pic scores a couple of its own goals on the dramatic front but has plenty to entertain midscale British auds, including a likable lead by Colin Firth. Capitalizing on the local fame of Nick Hornby's original book, U.K. distrib Film Four is giving the film a major, upbeat push in Blighty, where it should do bonnie (but not "Trainspotting"-style) biz. European auds are also likely to respond, but the pic's lack of a strong stylistic signature and its generally telefilm feel put a large question mark over its North American potential. Hornby's 1992 book, wittily charting the author's obsession with the North London soccer team Arsenal, rocketed him to local cult status, since confirmed by his next tome, "High Fidelity," centered on a dysfunctional record-store owner. For the film, Hornby has taken a single chapter (Arsenal's progress through the 1988-89 Football League), invented a female vis-a-vis, and fictionalized all the characters.

You don’t need to be a soccer fan to warm to “Fever Pitch,” an enjoyable, goodhearted romantic comedy centered on a London football nerd and his g.f. problems. Pic scores a couple of its own goals on the dramatic front but has plenty to entertain midscale British auds, including a likable lead by Colin Firth. Capitalizing on the local fame of Nick Hornby’s original book, U.K. distrib Film Four is giving the film a major, upbeat push in Blighty, where it should do bonnie (but not “Trainspotting”-style) biz. European auds are also likely to respond, but the pic’s lack of a strong stylistic signature and its generally telefilm feel put a large question mark over its North American potential.

Hornby’s 1992 book, wittily charting the author’s obsession with the North London soccer team Arsenal, rocketed him to local cult status, since confirmed by his next tome, “High Fidelity,” centered on a dysfunctional record-store owner. For the film, Hornby has taken a single chapter (Arsenal’s progress through the 1988-89 Football League), invented a female vis-a-vis, and fictionalized all the characters.

Paul (Firth) is a 30-ish English teacher in a state school whose life is dominated by soccer in general and, in particular, the fortunes of Arsenal, a team that hasn’t won the league cup in 18 years. Then, two changes affect his tightly circumscribed world: Arsenal starts to look like it could have a real chance during the ’88-89 season, and Paul begins an edgy relationship with brittle new teacher Sarah (Ruth Gemmell), a work-obsessed achiever who stands for everything Paul rejects.

Sarah finds herself falling for Paul despite her better judgment and his fumbling attempts to unhook his life from soccer. But following his reaction to Arsenal’s defeat in a match on home turf, she decides enough is enough and walks out of the relationship. The football club still has one shot left at the title — but it’s a million-to-one chance in an away game against Liverpool.

Though there’s a reasonable amount of buff detail, plus captions dating Arsenal’s progress through the season, the movie is more about the obstacle that any obsession presents to getting a real life. Matches are shown through the reactions of Paul and his pals in the stands rather than portrayed directly onscreen — a clever device that works dramatically and also makes the pic an easier ride for non-enthusiasts of the sport.

But although we see the external symptoms of the central character’s “disease,” we’re never much the wiser about its inner workings. Flashbacks to Paul’s childhood — initially confusing unless you pay close attention to the changes in clothes and props — limn an tentative relationship with his father (Neil Pearson) that was finally cemented by a trip to a soccer match. Beyond that, however, the movie doesn’t fully communicate what it’s like to have one’s life ruled +by an obsession basically beyond your control.

And though the Paul-Sarah relationship neatly mirrors the up-and-down fortunes of Arsenal itself, the character of Sarah too often acts as a drag on the pic, especially in the hang-fire central section prior to the upbeat, genuinely inspiring finale. It may well be a truism that women like to change the men they love, but in dramatic terms Sarah too often comes over as a boring killjoy who’s forever dampening the fires of Paul’s boyish enthusiasm. This is a relationship that’s clearly going nowhere from the start, despite their sexual attraction, and it’s a stretch not only to sympathize with her viewpoint but also to accept her volte-face at the end.

Still, first-time feature director David Evans (from TV docus) comes up with some snappy montages that propel the movie along — helped by some 20 pop numbers ranging from Van Morrison and the Who to Fine Young Cannibals — and orchestrates the final reels with a sure hand for mixing comedy and emotional suspense.

Firth, currently riding high from his success as Mr. Darcy in the BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice,” is fine as Paul, modulating his usually well-bred tones into an educated laddishness that’s immensely appealing. Gemmell, in her first major screen role, is OK in a difficult part, but frequently overshadowed by Holly Aird as her witty, straight-talking flat mate. Pearson, a Brit tube heartthrob, is good in a smallish role as Paul’s dad.

Technical credits are pro, without being overly polished.

Fever Pitch

British

Production

A Film Four Distributors release (in U.K.) of a Channel Four presentation of a Wildgaze Films production. (International sales: Film Four Intl., London.) Produced by Amanda Posey. Executive producers, Stephen Woolley, Nik Powell. Directed by David Evans. Screenplay, Nick Hornby, based on his book

Crew

Camera (Rank Film Labs color), Chris Seager; editor, Scott Thomas; music, Neill MacColl, Boo Hewerdine; production design, Michael Carlin; art direction, Karen Wakefield; costume design, Mary-Jane Reyner; sound (Dolby Digital), Jim Greenhorn, Aad Wirtz; line producer, Nick O'Hagan; assistant director, Richard Whelan; casting, Liora Reich. Reviewed at Rank preview theater, London, Jan. 16, 1997. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Paul Ashworth ..... Colin Firth Sarah ..... Ruth Gemmell Paul's Dad ..... Neil Pearson Paul's Mum ..... Lorraine Ashbourne Steve ..... Mark Strong Jo ..... Holly Aird Ted, the Headmaster ..... Ken Stott Ray, the Governor ..... Stephen Rea
Luke Aikman, Richard Claxton, Bea Guard, Annette Ekblom, Peter Quince, Charles Cork, Bob Curtiss.
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