Thursday, November 28, 2019

A Major Misfire of a John Travolta Performance Anchors the Dismal The Fanatic

People on the Autism spectrum like myself have to deal with a lot of...let's say troublesome depictions of people in our community in pop culture. Typically, people on the Autism spectrum are reduced to being childlike savant sidekicks in American film/television that exist to deliver quips rather than actually function as people. To boot, such depictions are almost exclusively based on cis-het white dudes, furthering the incorrect perception that people of color and women cannot have Autism. There have been some exceptions to this rule, thankfully, but The Fanatic is not one of them, which features a person on the Autism spectrum as the titular lead whose fixation on a celebrity eventually turns violent.

This protagonist is named Moose and played by John Travolta. Yes, the lead character is named Moose. Moose lives in Los Angeles and spends his days hounding celebrities for autographs. The newest movie star he's become enamored with is Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa). After an attempt to get an autograph at a public signing goes awry, Moose becomes determined to track down Hunter Dunbar and get his signature. This eventually leads to Moose tracking Hunter down to his personal residence. Moose eventually begins to unravel as the cartoonishly mean people around him (like a fellow Hollywood street performer) berate him and call him a stalker. Moose never dances down a staircase in his rebellion against society but he does concoct a plan for Hunter Dunbar.

There's a whole lot going on in The Fanatic and none of it good. Let's start with the depiction of Moose as someone on the Autism spectrum, which is a comically stereotypical movie version of Autism. There's never any attempt by writer/director Fred Durst or actor John Travolta to make Moose an actual believable person, he's just a collection of tics, traits and oddball dialogue. Not only does that have the troublesome effect of furthering the notion that people on the Autism spectrum aren't really people, but it also proves a detriment to The Fanatic's attempts at being a thriller. This is supposed to be a chilling story about Moose unraveling but he's already pretty unnerving and detached from reality from the get-go. He doesn't so much spiral out as the story goes on as he does remain at the same level of obliviousness for the entire production.

Travolta's attempts at portraying Moose proves to be a cringe-worthy portrayal of Autism, one that screams laziness in how it's just a collection of bits and pieces from prior hackneyed onscreen depictions of Autism. His lead turn does at least provide some unintentional humor in seeing how utterly out-of-place Travolta's performance is in the overall movie. Travolta's depiction of Moose is straight out of a Happy Madison movie, he's running around doing things, like performing a fake Cockney accent in Moose's night-job, in a broadly comical of a manner as possible. Meanwhile, Durst's script and direction are clearly aiming for a grim thriller vibe that Travolta's performance constantly rubs up against.

Travolta isn't just out of place here, it's like he's from another dimension entirely. Trying to center a grim thriller around this performance is a fool's errand that makes for fascinatingly incompetent cinema. Similarly missing the mark is how Fred Durst's script tries to contemplate the relationship between celebrities and fans. The way this film tackles that dynamic is oddly out-of-date. It's as if the script was written in 2006 and nobody bothered to update it. Repeated references to eBay as a powerful force to be reckoned with alone make this feel like something from a whole other era and there's plenty of other instances where The Fanatic's exploration of celebrity/fan feels practically arcane in the modern world.

In an age where social media stars sell their bathwater to fans, The Fanatic's depiction of a guy going to extreme lengths for an autograph feels not just out-of-date but also quaint. On top of all that, Durst's script is also laughably poor in terms of creating any kind of tension, the kiss of death for any thriller. Some of that can be chalked up to Travolta's woefully miscalculated performance, but it also has to do with Durst's script having a bad habit of just throwing things on-screen and then never doing anything with them. The death of a notable character just comes and goes in a clumsy fashion, supporting characters like a nasty street performer or a friendly security guard end up having no impact on the plot, so much of this movie is just pointless. As an on-screen depiction of Autism, The Fanatic is a prime example of how not to go about handling and portraying Autistic characters. Amazingly, though, that turns out to be the least of the problems of this staggeringly inept thriller.

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