Holy shit, Big Fan. I’ve been running around calling it the Taxi Driver
of sports comedies, which doesn’t really do it justice, for while the
film is funny it’s not actually a comedy. In fact Big Fan is one of the
most tense, nerve-wracking and nail-biting films I’ve seen in quite
some time. An examination of everyday insanity and obsession, it’s a
movie that is on the surface about hardcore sports fans but really
talks about all the ways in which we prostrate ourselves before our
objects of adoration as well as project ourselves onto them. .
Oswalt is Paul Aufiero, a 36 year old guy who lives at home with his
mother, works as an attendant at a parking garage, sleeps under NFL
sheets and whose daily bright spot is calling into a sports talk radio
show. A die-hard Giants fan, Paul spends his work shift writing out the
bon mots and barbed arrows he’ll sling at fans of other teams during
his nightly call in to the Sports Dog show, and he saves many of his
most vicious rejoinders for Philly Phil, an Eagles fan who calls in to
the New York local station just to piss off the fans.
of those sports fans who believes he has some impact on the game. He
and his friend Sal go to every Giants home game, even though they just
watch on a portable TV in the parking lot. The important thing is that
they’re present, lending some of their magic to the team. Ironically,
Paul does have an impact on the Giants’ season when he and Sal follow
quarterback Quantrell Bishop to a strip club and, after a
misunderstanding, the QB beats Paul into a coma. Bishop is benched
during the police investigation and Paul finds himself stonewalling the
cops so that his favorite player can get back on the field and deliver
the season. And things just get darker from there as Paul slowly
spirals out of control.
When Paul comes out of his (brief) coma,
he asks what day it is. When he finds out that it’s Tuesday all he
wants to know is how ‘we’ did over the weekend. For some people this
will be the point where the film loses them, but for me it’s the point
where I got where Siegel was going. Siegel understands that Paul’s
obsessions are more than skin deep – he’s not just interested in the
Giants, he lives them. It’s not hard to imagine a die-hard movie geek
choosing not to press charges against Christopher Nolan after a traffic
accident if it meant the Dark Knight sequel would be in jeopardy. The
details of Paul’s obsessions are different, but nerds will recognize
the bigger picture of what it means to be this obsessed.
The world of the call in radio show also reminded me of a message
board; there are the rivalries, the callers who have made names for
themselves and the feeling of imporantance of getting your voice heard
– in this case very literally. It’s a familiar world but strange at the
same time, and I like the way that Siegel gives it depth and approaches
it with compassion. He also approaches Paul with a certain level of
compassion – the jokes about him are obvious (at one point his mother
confronts him about his masturbation habits. The scene plays out as
hilarious and uncomfortable but never with Paul feeling like the butt
of a joke) but Siegel’s not interested in making him a clown. And
Patton Oswalt does an amazing job of finding the right tone for Paul.
He never lets the character off the hook and never hides that he’s a
sad, lonesome, pathetic guy, but at the same time he allows us to like
him. So much so that, as the film heads into the third act and Paul
seems to be really going off the rails I felt almost sick with worry
about what he would do next.
It’s that third act that raises Big Fan from good to great; Siegel
builds tension like he was making a thriller, and the climactic moments
are real edge of your seat filmmaking. It’s amazing that the film can
keep ratcheting up the tension and the awkwardness (but not generally
in a comedy of awkwardness way, like The Office) and then still deliver
a climax so jaw droppingly good. Siegel more than proved himself as a
writer with The Wrestler (which had similarly funny but not comedic
elements and a basic soft spot for the foibles of its lead character.
And also featured a sports star and a strip club!), and with Big Fan he
shows that he has a serious career as a director ahead of him. This
film is almost no-budget, so it’ll be exciting to see what he does with
more money in the future.