In The Fanatic, John Travolta portrays Moose, a fanatically obsessed movie geek living in Los Angeles, working nights on the Hollywood Strip as a costumed character. Moose collects autographs, and his white whale is the signature of action star Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa). Hunter is a body-building douchebag who abruptly leaves a signing before Moose can get a collectible jacket signed, which leads Moose to find his house on Star Maps and subsequently stalk him.
Moose is oblivious to the way his actions appear to the public because all he wants is the signature. Tragedy unfolds. Moose is clearly depicted as on the autism / Asperger spectrum via stereotypical behaviors Travolta incorporates into his role. It’s not on the level of Rosie O’Donnell’s performance in Riding the Bus With My Sister, a legendary example of going too far with good intentions, but Travolta has dialed his character up to 11. To say The Fanatic is problematic based on Travolta’s performance is fair. It’s easy to question whether he was personally drawing on these ideas while performing his role. I don’t know, but the impact is still there, and as the story unfolds it makes the entire movie an uncomfortable affair, in ways maybe unintended.
“You’re a fan. Without you, I’m nothing.”
Writer-director Fred Durst (of Limp Bizkit fame) seems to have something to say about being a famous personality with legions of fans who don’t respect personal space. Moose is portrayed as a completely oblivious obsessive who just wants attention from Hunter while Hunter is dealing with a crumbling marriage and uncontrollable sexual urges for his maid, Dora (Marta Gonzalez Rodin). Neither is the hero of the story, per se, as Moose takes his obsessions too far while Hunter responds with outsized and unempathetic bursts of real violence. As the tensions ramp up and Moose becomes more and more out of line, the film edges into an area where it feels nasty and thoughtless. Moose is clearly a stalker; Hunter is clearly an asshole. It’s a collision course Durst wants to explore, and it makes for a tense experience. Instead of feeling like an honest exploration of a complicated situation, the story’s denouement leaves a very bad taste.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say it implies that everyone on the spectrum is capable of the kind of crimes Moose commits or that it makes the statement that Hunter’s ultimate violence is warranted. It feels, though, like the film certainly uses ingrained stereotypes to explain away Moose’s behavior and garner easy sympathy for a character committing criminal acts. It casts a shadow over other ideas the movie has about telling a thriller story that involves an obsessed fan and a person unworthy of admiration. The conclusion of The Fanatic — in which great violence is inflicted with gory glee — only makes Travolta’s performance feel even more callous and troubling. It left me feeling low.
Rather than Durst just telling a story about the perils of celebrity, he’s telling a version where the person who wouldn’t leave him alone is pantomimed as someone on the spectrum — presumably to laughs by the crowd around him.
The movie has a smattering of interstitials and flourishes that set it apart from most VOD fare, animated interstitials that seem designed to pad out the svelte 89-minute running time. Travolta no doubt took the part because it provided him something different from the latest direct-to-streaming shit he’s signed up to do.
(To be fair to Travolta’s work ethic, as his Face/Off co-star Nicolas Cage said in a recent New York Times interview: “Not all the movies have been blue chip, but I’ve kept getting closer to my instrument. And maybe there’s been more supply than demand, but on the other hand … I want to be performing. In any other business, hard work is something to behold. Why not in film performance?”)
The Fanatic is certainly separate from Gotti or Speed Kills or Trading Paint. And better than those. But that doesn’t really mean it’s good or from a good place. Like Gotti’s exoneration and veneration of a murderous mobster, Travolta’s using his talents to speak the voices of producers and writers who are constantly punching down. The actor is working, and working hard, but it’s consistently in the service of stories without good merit and sometimes with thoughtless cruelty. A strange third act for such a long career.