By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 19, 2009)
Limited goals: Oswalt and Corrigan in Big Fan.
There are sports fans, and there are sports fans. And then there is Paul Aufiero, the protagonist of writer-director Robert D. Siegel’s new film, Big Fan. To say that Paul (Patton Oswalt) is an uber-fan of the N.Y. Giants football team is a vast understatement. The Giants are his raison d’être. Every night before he goes to bed, he doesn’t say his prayers. Instead, he religiously breaks out his dog-eared yellow-ruled tablet and furiously scrawls out a litany of devotion to his team, which he then delivers like a well-rehearsed sermon in his nightly call to a popular local sports talk radio program.
Occasionally, he is compelled to offer a point-by-point rebuttal to his arch-nemesis, a Philadelphia Eagles fan who calls into the same show for the express purpose of antagonizing the Giants fans.
Paul (a cross between Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty Piletti and John Kennedy Toole’s literary creation, Ignatius J. Reilly) has a lot of spare time to devote to defending the honor of his team against evil radio trolls, because he doesn’t have too many other distractions in his life.
A 30-something bachelor who still lives with his mother, he works an undemanding job as a parking lot attendant and has virtually no social life (if this sounds like it’s shaping up to be one of those depressing character studies about empty lives of quiet desperation, I am here to tell you… you’re right.) Well, Paul does have one friend named Sal (played by indie film stalwart Kevin Corrigan) who shares his undying love for the team; and he doesn’t date much, either.
One night, while Paul and Sal are out and about enjoying a bit of the Staten Island nightlife, they happen to spot one of their beloved team’s star players (Jonathan Hamm) getting into a limousine at a local gas station. The two pals, walking on air and feeling beside themselves with fan boy giddiness, decide to surreptitiously tail the player and his entourage, to see how the other half lives.
Eventually, they find themselves at a pricey strip joint in Manhattan, where Paul screws up enough courage to make a beeline for his hero’s booth, in hopes of a meet and greet. Unfortunately, the evening (and Paul’s life) goes sideways from that point forward.
The film is an odd mix of broad social satire and brooding character study; but for the most part, it works. Partially, it’s about the cult of celebrity, especially as it applies to the tendency Americans have to turn a blind eye to the sociopathic tendencies displayed by some multimillionaire athletes. The film takes a few unexpected twists and turns that reminded me of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66, another quirky indie character study that keeps you on your toes by challenging your expectations right up to the end.
Oswalt is impressive, giving a fearless performance in this decidedly unflattering role (you are most likely to be familiar with him from his work as a standup and the myriad of quirky supporting characters he’s played on TV shows like Reno 911). Corrigan is excellent, as always (when is somebody going to give this perennial second banana a starring role?). Michael Rapaport is suitably obnoxious as Paul’s radio tormentor, “Philadelphia Phil”. Gino Cafarelli is good as Paul’s brother, an ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyer, and Serafina Fiore is a hoot as his wife, an orange-tanned, big-haired, high-maintenance East coast princess straight out of Soprano world.
This is the directorial debut for Siegel, who also wrote the screenplay for last year’s critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated sports dramaThe Wrestler. There are enough parallels (dark character study, sports backdrop, blue-collar East Coast milieu) to suggest that there may be a certain theme running through his work. Or perhaps it’s too early to judge, based on two films. It will be interesting to see what he decides to do next.