Viewing a football game on TV from the stadium parking lot would be a frustrating experience. With a televised delay of up to eight seconds, the ticketholders' audible reactions would telegraph the results of vital plays long before they hit your set. Conversely, it might build an eight-second anticipation for huge turnovers. Watching Big Fan by screenwriter (The Wrestler) and first-time director Robert D. Siegel mirrors this. While the signs point toward a certain unhappy outcome, we are glued to the screen, hoping for an amazing and transformative about-face.
In the world of Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), the New York Giants football team is King and Country, with defensive star Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) as the allegience-worthy monarch. Paul is a relentlessly obsessive enthusiast who scripts trash-talking rants while at his parking lot attendant job, then delivers them during a nighttime call-in show--to the everlasting frustration of his sleeping mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz) with whom he lives. Paul is a schlub, a 36-year-old idler who is solely interested in a team he can't even afford a ticket to go see. After he and fellow ne'er-do-well Sal (Kevin Corrigan) spot and subsequently follow Bishop to a Manhattan nightclub, Paul's innocent encounter with the bruiser leads to a brutal beat down that lands Paul in the ER and Bishop on suspension. With a looming matchup against rivals the Philadelphia Eagles, the Giants' chances of success seem to ride on Paul's decision to press charges or deny his hero did any wrong.
Some will view Big Fan as an examination of the idolatry of American sports, the slavish devotion and near-spiritual fervency with which some sports worshipers organize their lives. That may be Siegel's intent, but the film comes across much stronger as a story of personal choices. Paul reacts to the recommendations and successes of his older siblings with an abruptness that doesn't indicate a rejection of their "normalized" lifestyles, but rather an automatic response to their intervention. As the youngest of three, he's been subject to their example and advice his whole life, and his commitment to his sad-sack situation is a rebellion, an assertion of his own freedom as an adult. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make the cowboy lead the horse to water. It's a devastating method of revolt, but it's the only control Paul has over his life.
Comedian Oswalt--best known for voicing the rat Remy in Ratatouille (2007)--enacts both Paul's fomenting frustration and gleeful immaturity with assurance and aplomb. It's a great performance, never showy or slapstick. While we hate what he's doing to himself, we sort of love this guy. Corrigan and Kurtz deliver solid support, and Michael Rapaport's late-act appearance as a rival fanatic is superb.
Writer/director Siegel debuts with a few glaring first-time flubs: odd, unilluminating camera pans, character discontinuity (we never learn why Sal doesn't testify) and overly repeated shots of Bishop's physique and bling. But Big Fan's story line is excellent. The film's final few minutes--where a literally two-faced Paul infiltrates a Philadelphia sports bar--cleverly constructs doubt as to Paul's direction in life. Is he abandoning his life in Staten Island? Is he re-examining his choice of friends and influences? Or is he simply trying out another side of fandom? Big Fan's final turnover isn't quite what you expect, so don't leave the game early.