Before you read this article, I want you to know that Big Fan is in no way a comedy. Forget the fact that the movie stars my favorite comedian for the last 5 years or so, Patton Oswalt, or that it was written/directed by Robert Siegel, the former editor-in-chief of The Onion. It is a dramatic character study, through and through. So instead, try to keep in mind that Oswalt has done serious work recently in Dollhouse and United States of Tara, and Siegel wrote The Wrestler last year, another film in the same vein of a sports movie without sappy messages. Also featuring Kevin Corrigan and Michael Rapaport, Big Fan paints a sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes frustrating, but always sincere portrait of a man so dominated by his love of football that even a personal trauma exacted by his hero may not be enough to set him free. But while it may not lift your heart, it will absolutely win you over with its inspired acting and passionate direction; believe me, this one is GOOD!
The story begins by displaying the everyday life of Paul Aufiero (Oswalt), a tollbooth attendant at a parking garage by day, New York Giants enthusiast by night and weekends. Joined by fellow slacker and only friend Sal (Corrigan, Pineapple Express), he haunts Giants Stadium and watches the game from a TV powered by jumper cables to a car battery. He is also a regular caller for a late-night sports radio show, obsessively preparing notes beforehand and engaging in a feud with “Philadelphia Phil” (Rapaport, Prison Break), who rants on his Brotherly Hate for the Giants. However, Paul defines himself completely by this hobby, and his personal life is a train wreck; he lives at home, works a dead-end job and refuses to look elsewhere, and despises his rich brother Jeff, an injury lawyer who married his voluptuous secretary. One night Paul and Sal spy Quantrell Burress, the Giant’s star player and Paul’s idol, at a gas station and tail him, hoping for an opportunity to introduce themselves. After a mysterious and shady stop at a suburban home (a drug pick-up comes to mind), they arrive at a strip club and follow him and his posse inside. After many attempts, they approach and accidentally let it slip about their journey to meet him. Unfortunately, Burress thinks it’s a shakedown, and brutally beats Paul into unconsciousness. Upon waking, Paul must decide whether to put the object of his infatuation behind bars, and what the consequences of that action would mean to both his life and his team, which are roughly one and the same.
It’s easy to make comparisons between this film’s protagonist and that of Siegel’s previously penned work, The Wrestler. They are both men who have completely consumed their lives with a recreational activity, letting their relationships with their family and their career fall by the wayside. They both also deal with health problems, and what impact sporting events can have on them. But while Mickey Rourke’s character has an arc to him and seems to have hope for a better, healthier tomorrow, Oswalt’s does not, and generally has more of a pitiful side to him. Sure, Paul has an inner conflict going, but while “The Ram” may have to make the hard decision to save his life, Paul’s team IS his life, and watching them lose every week because of his actions is not an acceptable outcome.
More than acceptable is Patton Oswalt’s performance in his first leading role, bringing a mixture of pathos, scorn and comedy to the part. He strays away from a more two-dimensional, testosterone-driven everyman, and instead evolves the persona of an emotionally distant shut-in who places one aspect of his life ahead of all others. I also suspect him to have added a gay sub-text to the part, as he never seems interested in women (including a stripper that propositions him) and often stares at a somewhat erotic poster of Burress near his bed. Also exceptional are the two supporting fans: Kevin Corrigan, shedding his violent characters in Superbad and Pineapple Express that didn’t fit him and giving dim-witted nuance and honesty to the meathead sidekick Sal, and Michael Rapaport, fresh off an antagonistic part in Prison Break and making his foul-mouthed adversary a total scene-stealer every time. Robert Siegel likewise brings to his directorial debut a knowledge of the lens and expertise with language not often seen. Surprisingly, he had originally intended to write a comedy (much more his background), but the hostilities of the plot and Oswalt’s desire not to be pigeon-holed into comedic parts made him change his mind.
Needless to say, I’m very glad he did. My friend and I took both Metra and the L until we got to the Music Box because it is the only theater in Chicago playing it, and we were not disappointed by the results. I hope to see more from all people involved in this film, and it will provoke serious discussions with you and your friends of sports fandom and its place in society. I award Big Fan 4 pitchforks; Oswalt and Siegel will disturb, unsettle and utterly enthrall you with this account of a super-fan so invested in his team, he is willing to throw all other aspects of his life to the sideline.