The Worst of Durst Case File #143/My Year of Flops II #40 The Fanatic
Late in the astonishingly awful Fred Durst-directed stalker psychodrama The Fanatic John Travolta’s Moose, a fame-obsessed, mullet-sporting man-child unhealthily obsessed with Hunter Dunbar, an action star terribly played by a never-worse Devon Sawa, yells into a mirror, “You have not, I repeat, you have not made the best choices!”
It’s one of many, many lines Travolta delivers into a mirror over the course of the film. The Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves spent less time talking to a mirror than Moose does here. Travolta is not talking about himself. He’s not even talking about his character but rather Dunbar but the lines nevertheless ring painfully, hilariously ironic.
As an actor John Travolta has, needless to say, NOT made the best choices. It would be more accurate to say that he has consistently and perversely made the worst choices, including signing on to star in The Fanatic, a Fred Durst-directed psychodrama that plays like an Asylum version of Big Fan.
Alternately, when the movie-obsessed Moose decides to spend some of his time terrorizing Hunter cos-playing scenes from Misery , Resevoir Dogs and Night of the Living Dead this enduring folly suggests a grubby, torture porn re-imagining of Ready Player One for Incels, or at least a different kind of Incel than the ones that dug Steven Spielberg’s worst film.
Last year Travolta’s Gotti towered over all other unspeakably terrible movies to triumph as the single biggest, most mocked and enduring flop of 2018. Travolta manages a similar feat here. It’s hard not to use Donald Trump-like superlatives when discussing the late period career of John Travolta but just as Gotti lived up to its hype as a boondoggle of epic, historic proportions, The Fanatic really is the stupidest, worst, most idiotic and misguided motion picture of 2019.
Or at least it would be if Loqueesha did not, regrettably, exist.
You how inconceivably, surreally, transcendentally terrible The Fanatic looks? It somehow manages to be even worse.
Durst and Travolta make a series of bold, universally terrible choices, beginning with opening the film with the words “You Are a Fan. Without You I’m Nothing”, credited to Hunter Dunbar.
Hunter Dunbar is of course the fictional movie star Sawa plays. Durst—who wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay based on something that happened to him back when he was famous—opens his movie by quoting not a poet, nor a writer, nor a philosopher, but rather ONE OF HIS FICTIONAL CHARACTERS.
And not even a good character, either! No, Hunter Dunbar is the single worst character I can think of with the exception of Moose.
Travolta and Sawa are locked in an epic acting duel here, a race to the bottom. Travolta goes big. Sawa goes even bigger. One is an astoundingly unlikable, unrealistic, hammy exemplar of incoherent toxic masculinity perpetually spilling out into violence. So is the other.
The Fanatic never explicitly establishes exactly what is going on with Moose neurologically so Travolta plays him as someone who doesn’t possess a mental illness but rather all of them. It’s as if Travolta went to a mental hospital and decided to adopt the tics and mannerisms of everyone he encountered, even the staff and the visitors.
Travolta is doing way too much in The Fanatic. He’s over-acting down to a cellular level. It begins with the look; a partially shaved mullet, round glasses, perpetual stubble, Hawaiian shirt, backpack and ill-fitting shorts. Moose is essentially a four years old boy in a 64 year old man’s body.
You know how when really bad comedy performers are playing children they’ll wear overalls and suck their thumb and lisp egregiously to really impress upon the rubes in the cheap seats that even though they’re famous adult Glen Campbell, for the sake of this variety show sketch they’re “Timmy”, a five year old at the circus? That’s Travolta’s crude burlesque of child-like guilelessness here.
Moose basically has three moods; manic excitement (“Yay, celebrities exist!”), paralyzing anxiety, (“But what if they don’t like me?”) and violent rage, (“I’ll murder them into liking me!”) that he cycles through.
Moose is never more than a frustration or two away from exploding into violence. He’s so painfully devoid of social graces that everyone he interacts with looks like they think they’re being Punked and that at the end of their interaction Ashton Kutcher will come out and Travolta will take off his ridiculous costume and maybe favor them with a few dance moves and sign some autographs.
Yet that somehow does not keep good samaritans from doing the kinds of favors for Moose that are inevitably doomed to backfire. In The Fanatic Moose is treated with inexplicable, excessive kindness and unthinking, unrealistic cruelty, and nothing in between.
On the excessive kindness side, Moose has a warm-hearted patron he does nothing to deserve in the form of Leah (Ana Golja), a paparazzi who does things like get her celebrity and autograph-obsessed pal into a celebrity party so he can get Hunter’s autograph, never imagining that someone with no sense of self-awareness or social niceties might not handle the situation gracefully.
In an even more disastrous miscalculation, Leah, whose wannabe sardonic world-weary narration seems to belong in an entirely different movie, one in which she is more than just a peripheral character with maybe ten minutes of screen time, tells Moose about an app that gives the location of the homes of stars, never envisioning that a man with the mind of a child, no sense of boundaries or propriety and an intense psycho-sexual obsession with one celebrity in particular might misuse such information.
Despite ostensibly being a wised-up, in-the-know type of dame, Leah doesn’t realize that she’s giving Moose the tools he needs to realize his existential destiny as a crazed celebrity stalker. How could she know her kindness to Moose would lead to deadly consequences? She probably thought Moose was like Lennie from Of Mice and Men. That gentle giant wouldn’t hurt a fly!
The Fanatic needs us to think that supporting characters look at Moose and see a lovable eccentric with the pure heart of a child who you just can’t help but feel for and want to take care of.
That’s how the narrator talks about him. It’s how the kindly black security guard seemingly auditioning to be the film’s Magical Negro sees him and talks about him. Yet NOTHING about Moose is remotely lovable. Being emotionally stunted and having every mental illness known to man does not turn Moose into Forrest Gump or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.
In keeping with his obsession with fame and celebrity, Moose makes what I imagine is very little money as a street performer on Hollywood Boulevard. Only instead of portraying Superman or Elvis Presley or Charlie Chaplin he plays that beloved figure of American pop culture, the English bobby with a handlebar mustache.
I suppose we should just be grateful that Travolta didn’t choose “fake handlebar mustache” and “insultingly bad English accent” as everyday affectations for Moose rather than as part of his bewildering and underwhelming professional get-up.
On the mean streets of Sunset Boulevard, Moose is terrorized by drug-addled street performer Todd “The God” in scenes that have a violently different tone than the rest of the film. Todd’s shtick involves distracting the rubes with carny spectacle so an associate can purloin the wallets of the distracted.
Todd is the Chris-R of The Fanatic. Like Chris-R, he doesn’t just seem to have wandered into the proceedings from another movie; he seems to belong in a different universe altogether. Todd serves a crude narrative purpose as the bully who first taps into Moose’s homicidal rage. Todd antagonizes Moose until he snaps and, strangling his drug-addled tormentor, yells, “I wish Freddy Krueger would come and chop off your head and it would roll in the street and a truck would squash it and the blood would splatter everywhere!”
This is supposed to be terrifying. Living in society has brought out the beast in our theoretically good-hearted hero. This is a crucial moment when Moose fights back, when he gives into the rage he has been barely suppressing all film long. Instead it’s fucking hilarious because everything is so ridiculously lurid and over the top: the childishness, the clumsy pop culture references, the spittle-flecked caricature of white male rage unleashed; it’s all pitched at such a fever pitch as to be laughable.
But Todd is ultimately a minor distraction for Moose. His real obsession is with the aforementioned horror and action movie star Hunter Dunbar, who makes the tragic mistake of doing a book signing at the memorabilia and bookstore Moose haunts.
When Hunter has to leave the signing early for dad duty Moose follows him out of the store and is rewarded with a one-two punch of insults and threats. Hunter responds to Moose’s clammy, viscerally awkward attempts to procure an autograph with an aggrieved, “How about I sign your face with my fucking fists? That’s a collector’s item you’re not gonna want to take home.”
Everyone in The Fanatic is exactly how they appear to be initially, only more so. From the very beginning, Moose seems like an angry loner on the verge of descending into violent madness. Hunter, in turn, comes off like a violent asshole similarly never more than a moment away from unleashing his inner rage. We expect violence and ugliness from these toxic twins; it’s less shocking or even surprising than deadeningly predictable, even inevitable.
The Fanatic starts off as a rancid attempt at 1970s grit and sleaze, as a phenomenally failed attempt at a King of Comedy-like character study. Then it becomes a lurid and wildly melodramatic stalker drama before devolving into a home invasion horror movie in its third act after Moose ties his hero up in his own home and terrorizes him ineptly.
Durst does not appear in The Fanatic but he does give himself a cameo of sorts that would go a long way towards ruining The Fanatic if there was anything to ruin. In an early indication that Hunter is a raging douchebag with violent tendencies and anger control problems, when he’s driving with his son Hunter plays a little rap-rock featuring a familiar nasal whine.
It’s Fred Durst and Limp Bizkit, of course, which would be annoying but not unforgivable if the film didn’t call attention to it. But The Fanatic is not about reigning things in. It’s not about subtlety. It’s not about understatement. It’s not about good judgement or smart choices or anything of the sort.
So Hunter doesn’t just play Limp Bizkit, he excitedly asks his son, “You like a little Limp Bizkit? You like a little Bizkit?” before relating how he was into the band when he was younger.
Imagine, if you will, a fantastical alternate universe where The Fanatic is a good movie. In this crazy, mixed up, funhouse mirror world the movie receives excellent reviews for its sensitive and nuanced portrayal of mental illness. John Travolta generates Oscar talk for his powerful and poignant lead turn and Fred Durst receives accolades for re-inventing himself as an auteur of real vision and ambition.
Now imagine that forty minutes into the good, hypothetical version of The Fanatic one of the lead character stops the film dead so that he can spend a good fifty seconds bonding with his son over the shitty music of the man in the director’s chair. How unbelievably distracting would that be? How could it not break the film’s spell? How could it not be an absolute disaster, tone-wise?
Fred Durst’s clumsy tribute to his sideline as a musician would ruin a good psychological thriller; in The Fanatic it’s just one of many astonishingly poor decisions. The Fanatic is such an abomination that it’s hard to no where to stop. It’s primarily offensive in its appallingly histrionic, insensitive take on mental illness but there’s also something creepy and queasily homophobic about the way Moose’s obsession seems fueled by homosexual longing for Hunter.
Moose inhabits a regressive character I’d like to think we’ve moved past as a culture: the self-loathing, closeted homosexual who can’t acknowledge their sexuality so they sublimate sexual desire into violence and self-loathing.
The Fanatic suggests what The Room might look and feel like if an emotionally stunted, perplexingly “off” man-child like Denny was somehow both its villain and the anti-hero. The Fanatic gave me The Room flashbacks throughout. It’s as if Durst sat the cast and crew down the first day and played them The Room and sternly insisted, “This is what we’re going for in terms of tone and realism” and when the horrified cast responded that The Room is notorious for being the worst movie ever, he huffily insisted that they respect his authorial vision.
Leah the inexplicably sympathetic paparazzo’s narration sounds like the work of someone who just barely graduated from Film Noir Hardboiled Narration Night School. There is a comic disconnect between the words she’s speaking and her tone so profound that when she wraps up the movie’s bloody climax with incongruously sardonic final thoughts she sounds unmistakably like Mark sharing the hilarious anecdote about the harlot who ended up Guerrero Street after getting beaten badly by a man she cheated on.
Let’s just say that when they take Moose to the hospital to get treated I hope they take him to the one on Guerrero Street. Also, when The Fanatic introduces the subplot of Hunter having relations with a maid that Moose accidentally kills it feels every bit as bizarrely incongruous and superfluous to the already melodramatic proceedings as the mom’s casual mention of breast cancer in The Room.
And, of course, Todd is obviously Chris-R for a new generation of shitty movie lovers.
You’ve done it, Fred Durst. You’ve really done it. You’ve made a film that has won you a seat at the table with fellow misunderstood visionaries Tommy Wiseau and Neal Breen. Despite being a distressingly successful rap-rock musician directing a bona fide legend, of the small and big screen as well as bad movie variety, Durst has accomplished something close to outsider art with The Fanatic.
He’s created something that falls dramatically short of basic competence, of professionalism, yet delusionally insists it’s a West Coast variation on Martin Scorsese’s trickiest and most darkly funny masterpieces.
On paper The Fanatic seems genetically engineered to be exactly the kind of weird cult movie I fucking adore. It steals shamelessly from many of my favorite films, including, but not limited to, Big Fan, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy and Misery. It’s a grubby 1970s-style character study about a sad, desperate loner living on the fringes of society, just barely getting by in a world that he does not understand and makes no attempt to understand him.
It stars John Travolta, one of my very favorite actors and a preeminent Hollywood icon, in a movie about movies, an obsession so intense I have an entire column devoted to them over at TCM Backlot called Fractured Mirror. I’m similarly more than a little obsessed with movies about Los Angeles and The Fanatic takes place entirely in the weird, sad, desperate shadow of Hollywood fame.
I love movies about b-listers, hangers-on, has-beens and cult stars. And I find fandom endlessly fascinating as a subject for entertainment. I’ve written entire books about it.
So in another world The Fanatic is a strong contender for my favorite film of 2019. In this world, however, it is a strong, if not unbeatable, contender for the worst film of 2019. Yet that is also keeping in character. After all The Fanatic, a film that is too, too extra, has all the qualities of a terrible film I will fucking love as well.
It’s directed by a man famous for impressing a nation of mouth-breathing, Axe body spray-abusing dullards as the backward red baseball cap front jackass for Limp Bizkit, not his cinematic storytelling skill. It doesn’t just star John Travolta: it’s a John Travolta stinkeroo in the truest sense, in that it broadcast its singular and impressive stupidity from the earliest stages and over-delivers on both WTFness and the unforgettable, unforgivable hypnotic badness.
That every decision The Fanatic makes is both strong and wrong is a minor miracle in itself. Just as movies that do everything right and are perfect are a source of wonder and fascination so are movies where everything goes horribly awry in ways that defy belief and comprehension, movie like The Fanatic.
Travolta just gives and gives and gives. So does The Fanatic. You go in thinking it’s going to be a shit show of epic, historic proportions. You have no idea.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success
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