August 27, 2009

Big Fan

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Big Fan

DRAMA/COMEDY:

United States, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2009-08-28

Running Length:

1:26

MPAA Classification:

R (Profanity, Violence, Nudity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Patton Oswalt, Kevin Corrigan, Michael Rapaport, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Gino Cafarelli, Matt Servito, Jonathan Hamm

Director:

Robert D. Siegel

Screenplay:

Robert D. Siegel

Cinematography:

Michael Simmonds

Music:

Philip Nashel-Watts

U.S. Distributor:

First Independent Pictures

Subtitles:

none


There are different kinds of sports fans. The casual aficionado will check the papers for game results and occasionally watch the broadcast (or part of one) of an event and, while he (or she) will not be indifferent to the victory or loss of a favorite team, it will cause little more than a momentary pang of satisfaction or disappointment. Other fans are more involved, catching a majority of games on TV or in person, but still maintaining a healthy non-sports life. Then there are the die-hards, the obsessives: those to whom the world of sports becomes all encompassing. They live and die with their teams. Everything is focused on the next game. They are the Trekkies of the sports world; those who have lost perspective. If you don't think they exist, try listening to a sports talk radio show once in a while.

Writer/director Robert D. Siegel understands the psychology of the obsessive sports fan, and he brings it to the screen in Big Fan, a dark comedy that occasionally skirts close to the edge of tragedy. The movie is funny, but it's also sad. There are inaccuracies (especially the way in which a media firestorm is reduced to a minor conflagration) and shortcuts, but Siegel displays an excellent grasp of what makes the die-hard click. It's a difficult mindset for "outsiders" to comprehend. Should it be treated like any other addiction?

Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) is one of the New York Giants' biggest boosters. His life is devoted to the team. Several times each week, he religiously calls a late-night sports radio show and delivers monologues he has previously written and memorized. His over-the-air nemesis is Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rappaport), an Eagles booster who calls the New York station to tweak the local fan base and generate controversy. Unable to afford Giants tickets, Paul and his best friend, Sal (Kevin Corrigan), make regular pilgrimages to the Meadowlands on gameday, but they watch the games on TV from the parking lot, using a portable set powered by a car battery. Paul works as an evening parking garage attendant and lives with his aging, judgmental mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz). And he has no girlfriend except, as his mother notes, his right hand.

One night, Paul's obsession with the Giants gets him in trouble. While at a gas station, he and Sal spy Giants' star defensive player Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) filling up at another pump. They follow him on a long, rambling journey into Manhattan, where he (and they) end up at a strip club. Paul obsequiously approaches QB (as he is called), who is initially good-natured about the encounter - until Paul lets it slip that he followed the man all night. QB loses it and nearly beats his "#1 fan" to death. Paul spends the next week in a hospital and QB is indefinitely suspended. With their best player sidelined, the Giants begin losing, and Paul must struggle with the recognition that his actions have directly impacted the ability of his team to function at their best on the field.

What happens when someone loses the love of his life, the thing that has defined his existence? That question lies at the core of Big Fan. For Paul, his "everything" is the Giants. It's not even just football. It's a particular team. But his precious link to those players is compromised by QB's actions. It's tough to root for a man who has caused such tremendous physical pain. But, like a battered woman in an abusive relationship, he makes excuses and blames himself. He probably needs counseling, but football fans working minimum wage jobs and living with their mothers generally don't have the wherewithal or desire to seek help.

Big Fan is structured as a comedy, albeit a dark one. There are some very funny sequences, such as a shyster lawyer TV commercial made by Paul's brother and a time when Paul's mother gets on the other line while he's calling the sports radio station. Siegel is careful to avoid transforming his main character into a caricature. This is a careful, thoughtful screenplay. Narrative shortcuts made necessary by a low budget and the generally unhelpful attitude of the NFL create minor suspension of disbelief hurdles, but the honesty underlying the performance of Patton Oswalt compensates. Oswalt deserves the accolades he is getting for his work in this film. Known primarily for TV and voice work, he stakes a claim that he is more than capable of doing dramatic acting on the big screen.

The film's approach is non-judgmental yet revealing. Distilled to its essence, this is a character study of an antisocial, often unpleasant individual. Because Paul is dislikeable, Big Fan can at times be abrasive; it is by no means a comfortable 90 minutes. But it is true-to-life and, especially for those who follow sports, may touch a raw nerve or two. It also asks questions about why we as a society place so much emphasis on an industry while simultaneously marginalizing those who cross certain "acceptable" bounds. Providing answers are beyond the scope of what the writer/director is attempting, but the queries linger with nearly as unsettling an echo as the portrayal of Paul provides.

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