The first full line of dialogue out of John Travolta‘s mouth in The Fanatic is “I can’t talk long, I gotta poo.” There’s something to be said about a movie that lets you know what to expect right out of the gate, like a song called “Rollin'” that begins by telling you it is in fact time to keep on rollin’. If you were intrigued by the trailer for this stalker-thriller from director Fred Durst then strap the hell in, because it’s exactly as advertised: 90-ish minutes of two-time Oscar nominee John Travolta wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a wig I assume he had to shoot and kill during pre-production making performance choices that would make former Face/Off co-star Nicolas Cage tell him to turn it down several notches. It’s honestly mesmerizing. It might be one of my favorite movie-watching experiences of 2019 simply because I can’t adequately comprehend or explain its existence on this Earth. Do I “recommend” that you watch this film? I don’t know, would you recommend someone slow down a little to gawk at a car crash? Not entirely, but you can’t just ignore something this impossible to look away from.
The gist, at least, is simple: Travolta plays Moose, a debilitatingly socially awkward man living in Los Angeles. Moose makes his living taking photos with Hollywood Boulevard tourists dressed as a London bobby. (Travolta repeatedly yelling “poppycock!” into a mirror to prepare for this role nearly broke me.) But Moose’s real passion is horror flicks, especially those starring Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa), the face of such films as Space Vampires and Ghost Train. Kicked out of a Hollywood party after asking for an autograph and spurned by an angry Hunter at a book signing, Moose turns to his paparazzi friend Leah (Ana Golja) to track down his idol’s home address, a request that spirals into obsession and, finally, violence.
It’s a plotline ripe for the picking in the year of our lord 2019, when stan culture has exploded into wildfires of “follow me back king” tweet replies and people waiting at airport terminals, arms loaded with merch and Sharpies. (Casting the OG “Stan” as Moose’s target is probably the most clever thing about The Fanatic, and Sawa is great with the material he’s given.) And you actually do feel like it’s a topic on which Durst has plenty to say; the script, co-written with Dave Bekerman, is reportedly based on a true story, and regardless of how you feel about Limp Bizkit’s songs, a band doesn’t start one of the biggest clusterfucks in live music history without running into a few Mooses of their own.
But any chance at subtly or satire gets trampled by whatever in the sweet bowl-topped hell Travolta is doing here. The actor is committed to Moose’s quirks and tics like a BASE jumper without a parachute is committed to reaching the ground; absolute A+ for effort but surely there’s a better process. At its best, it’s a wildly over-the-top barn-burner that suggests a trashy B-movie sensibility that doesn’t bleed into much else in the film. At it’s worst, it’s…genuinely pretty offensive, as it’s not specific enough to be anything other than an overall brand of “simple” that society left behind somewhere in the early 2000s. Either way, Travolta’s shuffling feet, downturned eyes, and sudden fits of LOUD. NOISES. are the centerpiece of the film at all times, and woo boy my dude is out here making some choices. There’s a particular case of spit-dribble that I genuinely have to admire for both its strength and intensity.
Really, the most distracting issue with The Fanatic is that it seems in on its own joke about 50% of the time, like there’s a schlocky midnight camp-a-thon buried in there begging to be unleashed. This is, after all, a movie directed by the former frontman of Limp Bizkit in which a character listens to Limp Bizkit and says, “I used to listen to this back in the day. This is hot. This is nice.” Some goofy shit goes down in The Fanatic. The last 20 minutes are some of the most nonsensical plotting in recent memory but it’s also a bloody blast that finally lives up to all that low-budget horror potential. But it’s disproportionately balanced by some heavy-handed self-seriousness that posits itself as a Weighty Los Angeles Tale, like a Mullholland Drive made by someone who practices Whip-Its instead of transcendental meditation. This mostly comes in the form of some truly unnecessary voiceover from Leah sprinkled throughout the story. An example: “I have no idea why Moose would go back to that man’s house. But I suppose when you find the cookie jar, it’s hard to not go back for more.”
There is one heavy moment late in The Fanatic that I can’t stop thinking about. Not to get too spoiler-y, but it involves Moose saying “What kind of idiot do you think I am?” Travolta delivers the line like no other word in the movie, an intense, nearly character-breaking moment of clarity that feels almost like a drowning man breaking the surface for air. Just a brief reminder that John Travolta can and has put in stellar performances. You just think of his most iconic stuff, Grease, slaying the dance floor Saturday Night Fever, slaying the dance floor again in Pulp Fiction, all roles dependent on pure magnetism. It makes you wonder if this extremely odd, near-unexplainable late-era John Travolta is just relying on a different kind of magnetism. You will not be able to look away from The Fanatic. It’s just extremely unclear whether Fred Durst and John Travolta want you to laugh with them or not.
Rating: Listen, let’s say a solid C- at face value, but if you’ve got enough intoxicants and friends around The Fanatic hovers right around an A as a drink-along movie.
The Fanatic will be released in limited theaters on August 30, available on VOD shortly afterward.