Prominently placed at the start of a very long final credit crawl is what may go down in motion picture history as one of the most misguided displays of somber self-congratulation ever: “John Travolta IS Moose. ‘The Fanatic.’ A Fred Durst Film.” Given that this is a movie that starts with an onscreen-text quote from its own bad dialogue, the clueless hubris is no longer surprising by that point. Still, this paralyzingly awkward combination of “I Am Sam” and “The Fan” (either version) plus a little “Misery” — OK, make that a lot of misery — does truly impress in all the wrong ways.
For starters, it is the worst Travolta vehicle in some time, and coming just a year after the double whammy of “Gotti” and “Speed Kills,” that is really saying something. It also finds him entering that unfortunate pantheon of presumably well-intentioned performances of differently-abled characters that somehow emerge a compendium of the most cringe-inducing clichés of people with limited faculties.
Last but not least, this ersatz thriller about a simpleminded aging fanboy’s obsession with his movie-star idol is directed and co-written from his story idea by Durst, who lest we forget is the frontman of long-running frat metal band Limp Bizkit. Actually, he won’t let us forget, because in one of the most lamely gratuitous sequences ever, Devon Sawa’s action-hero actor drives his son (Dominic Salvatore) around, proposes they play “a little Bizkit,” and exalts “Awwww… that is nice. That! Is! NICE!” as they rock out to “The Truth.” If there were honorary Oscars for keeping a straight face under impossible circumstances, Sawa would be a shoo-in.
Unlikely to compete in that department are actual viewers of “The Fanatic,” which is bad in ways that sometimes provoke a disbelieving guffaw, but more often stir pained embarrassment. That begins with the clunk of an opening line, “Los Angeles: I call it the City of Bullshitters,” which commences the unnecessary voiceover narration of young paparazza Leah (Ana Golja).
She’s the only real friend to Moose (Travolta), a moped-riding sixtysomething with the mind of a child who clings to the outermost periphery of Hollywood glamour. His primary obsession is with cheesy mall-flick icon Hunter Dunbar (Sawa), and charitable Leah makes his day by smuggling him into an industry party that luminary is expected to attend. But the star doesn’t show up, and Moose creates enough of a disturbance to get physically ejected from the premises.
The next day, our unfazed superfan is excited to meet Hunter at a book signing event. But his big face-to-face moment is interrupted (by the star’s argument with Jessica Uberuaga as a stereotypically shrill ex-wife), and this leads to an altercation with the man himself. Somehow Leah still thinks it’s an OK idea to give Moose a map (or rather app) to the stars’ homes, which fast leads to him showing up at Hunter’s gate, then sneaking onto the very private property. At first he just scares the maid (Marta Gonzalez Rodin). But things rapidly escalate to violent-standoff proportions.
“The Fanatic’s” feeble script (by Durst and Dave Bekerman) isn’t even sure how much of a thriller it wants to be, as opposed to a character study of a sad-sack caricature. Given that it barely fills 80 minutes of non-credits time, the story is miraculously full of loopholes. We get why Leah might take a piteous quasi-maternal interest in Moose. But why would she trust him with any private intel when he’s already proven he has no self-control, and could endanger her own livelihood? For that matter, why does Moose even live independently? He scarcely seems capable, and the sole income source he appears to have comes from busking as an English bobby, apparently the most pathetic impersonation Travolta could come up with. Doing that all day wouldn’t bankroll a Happy Meal, let alone basic living expenses.
The star’s hunch-shouldered, mullet-haired, whiny-voiced turn suggests a hapless manchild who can barely dress himself. Yet one minute Moose is being bullied by mean fellow buskers (Jacob Grodnik, James Paxton), the next he’s got one in an iron death grip. How did he come to master the elaborate knots that hogtie Hunter to his bed in the film’s climactic stretch?
Of course, this movie doesn’t even bother explaining why Hunter (already alert to his pesky recurrent “visitor”) wouldn’t wake from peaceful slumber while being spread-eagled with ropes by a clumsy home invader. The movie finally orchestrates an ironical if unconvincing comeuppance to this ungrateful object of adulation, suggesting a possible satirical intent nowhere else evident. But this is the kind of enterprise that condescends to its cardboard characters while feeling mentally challenged itself.
The basic competence of its principal tech/design contributors aside, “The Fanatic” flatters no one, but is particularly damaging to Travolta, an actor who’s retained considerable public affection despite more bum vehicle choices and worse performances than most careers could withstand. If the mobbed-up wax museum cool of his turns in “Gotti” and “Speed Kills” provided one terrible illustration of his range limits, this effortfully hammy halfwit goes all the way in the opposite direction. The movie might be an unintentional laugh riot if its main attraction weren’t so downright squirm-inducing. A quarter-century ago, “Pulp Fiction” rescued Travolta from one career slough, reminding everyone why they’d enjoyed his stardom so much in the first place. Can another such intervention be arranged?
“Filmed on location in Alabama,” the L.A.-set feature has almost more WTF elements than can be enumerated, from the de rigeur “Night of the Living Dead” clip and explanatory ’70s-grindhouse-style childhood flashback (Moose is damaged because, of course, Mom was a slut) to the inexplicable cartoon interludes that add absolutely nothing to the package but somebody’s grade-school-level scribbles.
One hesitates to lay all the blame at Durst’s doorstep, since by all accounts his first directorial feature “The Education of Charlie Banks” (2007) was a serious, creditable drama. But as helmer, producer, co-writer, concept originator and recording catalog self-promoter here, he merits the accusation of this typically rank dialogue morsel: “Moose didn’t just cross the line. He f—n’ nuked it.”