Obsessive indie comedy explores dark side of fandom
Directed by Robert D. Siegel
Cast: Patton Oswalt, Kevin Corrigan
Listen to enough sports radio and you’ll get the idea that professional sports aren’t mere recreational distractions. There’re not just regional pissing contests, either. For many adults, professional sports are a full-blown obsession. After all, would a truly sane person smear his body with purple and yellow paint and then stand, half-naked, in a Minneapolis football stadium in 13 degree weather? Big Fan, a black comedy collusion between underappreciated comedian Patton Oswalt and up-and-coming screenwriter-turned-director Robert D. Siegel, takes this idea to its natural extreme: What if you crossed “The Jim Rome Show” with Taxi Driver?
Oswalt (“The King of Queens,” “Reno 911!” “Aqua Teen Hunger Force”) is front and center as Paul Aufiero, a Staten Island schlub who works at a parking garage, lives with his mother and devotes all his energy toward worshiping his hometown sports franchise, the New York Jets. Chubby, middle-aged and lacking in any sort of ambition, Paul’s only got two contacts with the outside world. One is his best friend, an equally socially inept football fanatic (Kevin Corrigan, “Grounded for Life”). The other is a late-night sports call-in show that he rings up every night just so he can gloat about his beloved G-men and engage in verbal battle with perceived archenemies like Eagles-loving blowhard “Philadelphia Phil” (Michael Rapaport in a well-chosen cameo).
The pathetic nature of Paul’s life becomes quite obvious quite early. You see, Paul isn’t just using the call-in show to express a love for football like a normal fan. His extemporaneous boasts are actually carefully scripted speeches that he practices on the way home from work. This is his sole form of manly glory: anonymous, 2 a.m. rants about who’s going to kick whose ass next Sunday. Paul is one of those “superfans” who firmly believes his loyalty and dedication have a visceral impact on the game. His entire life is lived, vicariously, through a bunch of athletes he’s never met. If they win, he’s on Cloud 9. If they lose, he’s in a murderous funk. Far from being an attack on professional sports (or the vast majority of their supporters), Big Fan is a character study in a particular form of single-mindedness.
One fateful night, Paul spots his idol, the superstar quarterback of the Giants, Quantrell Bishop (Arena Football League lineman Jonathan Hamm). Paul decides a little harmless stalking is in order and is soon shadowing the footballer to a Manhattan strip club. This leads to an ugly incident that does surprisingly little to shake Paul’s team loyalty. But the messy aftermath of this confrontation—family intervention, sudden fame and a deleterious effect on the Giant’s win-loss record—contributes to Paul’s inevitable Travis Bickle moment.
Writer/director Siegel’s last outing was as screenwriter for The Wrestler. While there weren’t a lot of laughs in that pathos-heavy sports drama, Big Fan is dripping with schadenfreude and excruciating humor. You may not explode with laughter; but depending on your own particular experiences, you’ll outgas plenty of uncomfortable snickers at the woeful adventures of our sad-sack obsessive. Ultimately, Siegel’s script doesn’t “develop” the character of Paul so much as “allow him to wallow in his own mediocrity.” Oswalt makes the film his own, though, with some smart timing and a lot of well-informed character work. Paul never becomes the butt of his own joke, and by film’s end you’re apt to find a strange sort of integrity in the sheer unrepentance of this professional loser.
Although the supporting cast is properly chosen, bit players are given less of a chance to flesh out their outer-borough stereotypes. Expectant of its slim budget and short run time, the tightly focused script makes Big Fan more of an indie film exercise than a fully realized, multiplex-ready dramedy. Nonetheless, as a study in self-fulfillment through a total lack of self-esteem, Big Fan is likely to generate a few fans of its own.