So we hold fast to our lucky jerseys, rally caps, and gameday superstitions, because we know that the slightest deviation from the rituals will, through a macabre act of synchronicity, cause our team to lose, crush our dreams and bring shame upon our community. We want – no, need – to think that, in some way, we have a positive impact on their team’s performance.
But what happens when an average fan’s actions genuinely hurt the team? This is the heart of Big Fan, the new dark film by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler). It stars comedian Patton Oswalt (Ratatouille) as Paul Aufiero, a 36-year old parking attendant who still lives with his mother – his childhood bedroom decked out with New York Giants memorabilia (the late-80s vintage “SIMMS 11” New York license plate was a great touch).
Aufiero spends his days in his booth fine-tuning exactly what he’s going to say later that night when he calls into the Sports Dogg’s radio show. In his mind, he’s become a local hero as “Paul from Staten Island,” praising all things Big Blue and taunting his nemesis, “Philadelphia Phil” (Michael Rapaport), and his fellow Eagles fans with such clever insults as “cheesesteak bozos.”
One night, while out with his best, and possibly only, friend, Sal (Kevin Corrigan), Paul spots Giants star linebacker Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), whose poster hangs over Paul’s bed, and the two follow him and his entourage to an upscale Manhattan strip club. Eventually they work up the courage to approach the five-time Pro Bowler, and what should have been Paul and Sal’s greatest hour quickly goes all pear-shaped. With a paranoia undoubtedly fueled by top-shelf booze, Bishop fears he’s being stalked and proceeds to beat him within an inch of his life.
When Paul regains consciousness three days later, he cares less about his health than the fact that, with Bishop suspended, the Giants defense fell apart against Kansas City. Paul now has to determine if filing a criminal and/or civil suit against Bishop is worth having the Giants, who are in a downslide as a result of the incident, tank the season.
But as befits someone whose life is measured out in wins and losses, moral dilemmas are not Paul’s strong suit, and the rest of the film deals with the consequences of his decisions – in his life, on the call-in shows, and, most importantly to him, on the field. Unlike the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David accidentally injures Shaquille O’Neal and then revels in his status as a local pariah, Paul can’t even look at the Bishop jersey in his closet without feeling the ultimate shame: letting the team down.
As Paul, Oswalt is a revelation, carrying every scene with his dumpy features and perpetually dour face. Few other actors could have captured Paul’s eternal state of desperation without launching into stereotype or clichÃ©, but Oswalt pulls it off masterfully, giving Paul a skewed sense of dignity even though he does nothing dignified throughout the film. He refuses to see Paul as a loser, but rather as a man whose life is validated by the Giants’ performances and the patronizing compliments doled out to him by the Sports Dogg after each call.
The rest of the cast is equally strong, especially veteran Marcia Jean Kurtz as Paul’s mother, and Corrigan, who plays Beavis to Oswalt’s Butthead. And as the equally obsessed Philadelphia Phil, Michael Rapaport may have finally found a character whose intellect matches his own. In the interest of disclosure, I should point out that I am a lifelong Giants fan, so seeing an Eagles fan depicted as a moronic, loathsome, vile creature was about right.
Siegel’s script is also excellent, expertly picking out the rhythms of sports talk radio, with its own slang and catchphrases. Although it contains its share of laughs, the humor of Big Fan comes entirely from the realism of the characters. It’s not so much a comedy as a bleak look at the darker side of our obsessions.