Released in select theaters this past weekend and hitting streaming this week, The Fanatic stars John Travolta as a mentally challenged Hollywood busker who becomes increasingly obsessed with his favorite movie star. The movie star is played by Devon Sawa, the guy who played Stan in that Eminem video, and the film is directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, writer of the six times platinum hit album Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog-Flavored Water.
“Fred Durst and John Travolta team up to ineptly recreate Big Fan” is a compelling pitch, perhaps the most compelling pitch, and the movie itself mostly delivers on the kind of train wreck absurdism that it promises.
If you haven’t been keeping tabs on Durst, who once rode the wave of a nation’s collective pre-9/11 desire to wear giant pants and scream at their moms, The Fanatic is actually his third directorial effort. It follows 2006’s medium well-received arthouse drama The Education of Charlie Banks, starring Jesse Eisenberg, and 2008’s inspirational football flop, The Longshots, starring Ice Cube and Keke Palmer.
This time around, Durst also gets co-writing credit, but it’s Travolta who steals The Fanatic. Wearing a grey mullet wig, helmeted to his scalp in front and shaved to the skin on the sides, Travolta plays Moose, an insert-clinical-diagnosis-here-though-I’m-pretty-sure-it-was-supposed-to-be-autistic man who dresses up as an English bobby to dance for tourists on Hollywood Boulevard, complete with fake mustache and bad cockney accent practiced in the mirror (I’m not sure if this is a thing, but I like the idea that it could be). Moose rides around town on a Vespa-type scooter, lives to collect celebrity memorabilia, and has a best friend, or “BBF,” in his words, a young paparazza with a septum piercing named Leah (Ana Golja), who every 15 minutes or so narrates the film for some reason.
Moose loves horror films and is so obsessed with Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa), his favorite actor, that when Moose hears Dunbar is coming to town, he spends his last 300 bucks on Dunbar memorabilia — a leather vest with “RICO” spelled out in gemstones on the back. Moose puts the vest on backwards and rides around town, rocking back and forth with excitement. Travolta on a scooter with a backwards leather vest and his attempt at a mentally challenged smile is laugh out loud funny, and one of the few places where The Fanatic‘s apparent intentions seem to square with our reaction.
When Dunbar disses Moose at an autograph signing, getting Dunbar to sign the vest becomes Moose’s white whale. In his pursuit of Dunbar, which takes Moose inside the actor’s Hollywood Hills home, “Moose didn’t just cross the line, he nuked it,” Leah explains.
Meanwhile, some of the other Hollywood Boulevard performers, led by Todd The God, a shock magician, try to bully Moose into becoming a pickpocket. Moose refuses, believing in an honor code among buskers, who apparently have their own locker room like a high school. Eventually, they push him too far and Moose snaps, offering a glimpse at what he’s capable of.
Moose begins to unravel, which naturally involves a lot of screaming at mirrors, hitting his own face, and rocking back and forth. It’s a fascinating performance, mostly for the wrong reasons, reminiscent of Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss or The Wicker Man, or Al Pacino in Heat.
A failed actor’s showcase is one of the most watchable kinds of movies. Not that you can blame (credit?) the actors themselves. Nic Cage or John Travolta, who’s fast becoming the new Nic Cage, are the acting equivalent of enriched uranium. They are their own inexhaustible energy source. Thus, the job of a director of their movies is not to inspire but simply to contain and to regulate. When Werner Herzog was directing Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, he would famously tell Cage to “turn the pig loose” whenever he really wanted to take the mufflers off.
Handled properly, these live-wire actors deliver Oscar-worthy performances, like Cage in Adaptation or Travolta in Pulp Fiction. When safety protocols aren’t properly observed, you end up with a meltdown, like Battlefield Earth or The Wicker Man.. Most of their performances fall somewhere between those poles, between perfectly humming energy grid and radioactive cloud of toxic scene-chewing. But it’s those cinematic Chernobyls that are most exciting. We can’t help but stare insensibly into the exposed core of the actor, even when we know it will probably give us cancer.
Fred Durst, Jacksonville’s long-shorted rap-metal pioneer, is the perfect Anatoly Dyatlov for The Fanatic. He reportedly first pitched Travolta on the project 15 years ago, and there’s a whiff of the anachronistic about it, to go along with its sense of indulgent self-regard. It’s a semi-hysterical kind of cautionary tale told from the perspective of a celebrity, about what will happen to society if we keep letting these obsessed fans and intrusive paparazzi run riot (won’t someone think of the famous people??). Celebrity blogs are all but dead and paparazzi are on life support but The Fanatic is trapped in the time period when Fred Durst was famous enough to get name-checked as blog fodder in a different Eminem song when Eminem still ruled the charts.
In that sense, there’s something heartbreakingly touching about The Fanatic. There’s the insanity of watching John Travolta turn the pig loose, sure, but there’s also the subtextual pathos of watching Devon Sawa’s character crank up a Limp Bizkit song in the car with his son, saying “Yeah, Limp Bizkit!” like it’s an adorable family ritual they share. I don’t know that many people are doing that, but it’s endearing watching Fred Durst try to make it a thing.