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There's something about Manny

The Farrelly brothers create a winning love triangle -- man, woman, and Red Sox -- in the funny 'Fever Pitch'

ou're a young professional woman who's been dating for, what, your entire adult life. Your problem (you've been told) is that you intimidate too many men. You meet this cute, funny, sensitive, straight guy, a high-school teacher, which is not exactly the profession you had in mind. You fall for him, anyway, and he's totally falling for you.

But there's this one problem: He's already in love -- with 25 dudes who call themselves the Boston Red Sox. Sure, it's only for half the year, but can you make this work?

''Fever Pitch," which has its red-carpet premiere tonight and opens widely on Friday, is the effortlessly entertaining romantic comedy made from this scenario. For women in these parts who this week are starting to lose their men to NESN, ESPN, and Fenway Park itself, the movie may play like a particularly painful documentary.

Business consultant Lindsey Meeks (Drew Barrymore) finds herself stuck in this very jam when she starts dating Ben Wrightman (Jimmy Fallon), who teaches math at East Boston High. After several dates, he comes out to her as a season-ticket-holding member of Red Sox Nation. He gets down on one knee and asks for her hand to Opening Day.

Barrymore and Nancy Juvonen produced the movie, which is very loosely based on Nick Hornby's book about British soccer lust. Impressively, it's been made with women in mind. There's no shortage of scenes shot at Fenway, but there's room for Lindsey's girlfriends to speculate, in the raucous manner of ''Sex and the City," about why Ben is still single. ''How is he not tranquilized and tagged by now?" asks Robin (KaDee Strickland).

Ben is a little suspect. He has no cellphone and a closet full of jerseys. The living room wall of his North End apartment is done up to look like the Green Monster. And his only apparent family are his equally fanatic childhood buddies and the lovable Fenway vets with whom he's been watching games since he was a kid.

But Ben also takes good care of Lindsey when she gets sick on their first date. He's a keeper, and she swears that she won't be one of those whiny women who complains that his devotion means he's not paying enough attention to her. Besides, she's putting in insane hours at the office angling hard for a promotion. But what happens when a workaholic locks horns with a Sox-aholic?

Directed by New Englanders Peter and Bobby Farrelly, ''Fever Pitch" arrives with the stink of Soxploitation. The sight, last year, of Fallon and Barrymore hopping onto the field and making out at Busch Stadium after the team won the World Series smacked of Hollywood opportunism at its most nauseating.

But those scenes are an afterthought in the finished product. As it turns out, ''Fever Pitch" is respectful and heartfelt about the problems that come with extreme fandom and how they might impinge on the happiness of a person who couldn't care less about Carl Yastrzemski. A Red Sox fan is an unusual breed of devotee, and it takes a strong person, probably a fellow diehard, to handle the moods that swing with the outcome of every game.

Lindsey, however, is clueless about baseball. She sweetly thinks that when Ben goes to spring training, it means he gets to practice with the team.

Screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (''Parenthood," ''Robots") replace Hornby's English wit with surprising emotional insight. After one of the couple's disagreements, a student of Ben's reminds him, ''You love the Sox, but do they love you back?" Humorously but sincerely, the movie asks, can Ben and Lindsey love around his obsession?

I was worried that a straightforward romantic comedy would neuter the playfully bruising humor the Farrellys inflicted in ''Kingpin" and ''There's Something About Mary," two coarse benchmarks in popular film comedy of the last 20 years. Once Barrymore is heard vomiting in one scene and is clocked with a foul ball in another, I relaxed. In fact, the brothers seem at home with the movie's lovey-dovey lightness and sense of maturity. This is the first movie they've made where all the characters seem like people rather than jokes.

Fallon still flails away like an over-caffeinated Muppet, but there's enough of a character for him to play so that his shtick (thrown-away lines, dumb faces, booming outbursts) becomes adorable as opposed to merely endurable.

Barrymore, meanwhile, might be the funniest woman in the movies. Like the most interesting romantic comediennes, she does more heavy lifting than the man. And she's unafraid of looking goofy, which is good news for the Farrellys.

Since Cameron Diaz gave male fantasies an effervescent good name in ''Mary," the brothers have struggled with how to let an actress be lunatic without looking stupid, the way Gwyneth Paltrow did in ''Shallow Hal." Barrymore gives the directors their first humanly offbeat performance. She makes you truly believe that Lindsey can stop worrying about her and Ben and just ''cowboy up."

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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