Screenwriter Robert D. Siegel has a fascination with the fringes and underbelly of sport in America. Last year, with a nearly oppressive focus, he examined the athlete”™s self-destructive obsession with fame and his inability to relinquish the spotlight in The Wrestler. For his directorial debut with Big Fan, Siegel moves his focus from the examination of the object of obsession to the obsessor, himself.
Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) is a common man. He is short, overweight, and he lives with his Mom on Staten Island. He works in a booth as a parking lot attendant. Sal (an excellently underplayed Kevin Corrigan) seems to be his only friend. On surface glance, Paul”™s life would appear boring and unfulfilling. However, Paul’s life has one singular focus that provides him with absolute ecstasy: The New York Giants. Paul”™s life is consumed by his obsession with his team, and in particular, their star defender, Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm). Paul spends all his time at work listening to sports talk radio and composing, in great detail, his own call-in responses to the show – particularly the ones to his nemesis; his counterpart fan in Eagles colors, Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rappaport). On Sundays, lacking the money to buy a ticket to the game, he parks his car next to the Meadowlands Sports Complex and watches the game on TV in the shadow of the stadium.
As chance would have it, one night Paul and Sal happen to see their hero, Quantrell Bishop, in Staten Island. Overwhelmed by their excitement, they decide to follow him, eventually ending up at a strip club in Manhattan. They work their way in and spend hours trying to muster up the courage to say hello to their idol. When they eventually do, a misunderstanding ensues. Bishops loses control and ends up pummeling Paul to the point of putting him in the hospital. When Paul awakens after three days, his first question is whether his Giants won. He quickly learns that, on account of the incident that put him in the hospital, Bishop has been suspended. To make matters worse, Paul is being pressured by his brother, and the D.A., to bring legal action against Bishop. Now he is confronted by a moral quandary: hold Bishop accountable for his actions — thus destroying his beloved Giants”™ chances for success — or feign ignorance and turn the other cheek in order to take one “for the team.”
The strength of Big Fan is in the humorous way the film examines this almost religious devotion many fans hold to their teams and the fact that they truly believe that the strength of their fervor will effect the outcome. In Paul”™s case, the tables are turned and he actually does hold they key to the team”™s success in his hands, but ultimately, he puts the needs of the team before his own. Whereas in The Wrestler, the audience is shown a blunt view of a pathetic man, Big Fan turns that perception around. To a certain extent, Paul really is pathetic, as we are constantly reminded by his brother and his own mother (an outstanding Marcia Jean Kurtz). However, whereas Mickey Rourke”™s character in The Wrestler seems to agree with the opinion we, as a viewer, have of him, Patton Oswalt”™s Paul does not. He loves his life as it is and does not have any desire for the “normal” things everyone else believes his life is lacking. And as we are ultimately reminded at the end of the film, even in the darkest of times, the one thing that sports grants you is perpetual hope, for every year brings the promise and optimistic prospect of a winning season.
Oswalt, long known primarily for his work as a standup comic, is surprising effective in a role that challenges his depth and range, though at times, it is actually a stretch to believe that he is someone so simple minded, merely because his wit and intelligence can”™t help but seep through. The supporting cast is excellent, and they provide a hilarious view of a rather tacky and trashy family. Siegel is capable enough in his first foray into directing, and while this film may lack the poetic depth and tragedy of The Wrestler, it provides a absurdly affectionate picture of a hero that all nobodies can admire.
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review by Zach Jacobs