Obsession is a common theme in cinema. Whether it’s obsession with a woman, a treasure or a white whale, man’s innate desire to gain control over something greater than himself has led to some of the finest storytelling in film history. Director/writer Robert Siegel‘s first script, for The Wrestler, detailed with a keen, if sentimental, eye the need for a man to hold onto his past glories. In Big Fan, Siegel’s directorial debut, he returns to the sports world with his focus not on the athlete, but the spectator. Sports has long held a fascination for people, so much so that they can often get much too involved in the results of things they cannot possibly control. As a lifelong sports fan myself, I know what it’s like to invest oneself with an inordinate amount of interest over something that, in the long run, means nothing much at all. Knowing this doesn’t change it one iota, of course. This would be obvious to anyone who saw me watching the Rockies’ postseason last year.
Comedian Patton Oswalt displays impressive dramatic skills as the ‘big fan’ in question, a 36-year-old man named Paul Auferio who is devoted to his hometown New York Giants. Paul, from all appearances, lives neither wisely nor too well. He is a parking lot attendant who still resides at home with his disapproving mother. Cinematic clichés would dictate how this will go immediately; Paul will prove to be a charming, misunderstood fellow who will eventually find true love to free him of his burdens. Zooey Deschanel will, undoubtedly, be a professional kite flyer who adores him for who he is. Thankfully, Siegel is a writer and not a computer program, so he spares us these lies and instead documents a willing ‘underachiever’ who grudgingly accepts his lot in life, while expressing no little amount of disdain for his family. His social life is consumed totally by sports, and the fate of the Giants football team, in particular. Paul’s great moments in the spotlight are when he calls in to the local sports talk radio show, where they know him by name. His scripted oratories are listened to by his admiring pal, Sal, played with hangdog lethargy by Kevin Corrigan, in a fine performance reminiscent of the great John Cazale. They aren’t bad guys by any means, but going nowhere, which bothers them, but not too much.
Paul and Sal are driving around Staten Island when they spy Giants star linebacker Quantrell Bishop at a gas station. They follow him into Manhattan, where he goes into a nightclub. They try to ingratiate themselves to him at the club. This fairly docile action goes impossibly awry, and leads to the main issue of the story, which is how deep is a man’s loyalty to a team or player that he would let it blind him to his own well-being?
In clumsier hands, Paul would be portrayed as a grotesque, the quintessential fat loser who is easy game for mockery for the audience’s benefit as in the worthless Napoleon Dynamite. Instead, Oswalt imbues this conflicted man with an affectless relatability; we may not make the choices that he has made, but how far-fetched is it? Life is, in many ways, simply finding ways to distract ourselves from the immense banality of existence. Hobbies, no matter what they are, have intrinsic value, even if they are only to ourselves. But, in the end, they are only dalliances; it’s the level of intensity that we grant them that determines where entertainment ends and obsessiveness begins.
While there are some darkly comedic moments, Big Fan is at its heart the story of a man held hostage by what he loves the most. It’s also an unexpectedly superior film from a director who will be well worth keeping an eye on in coming years. Highly Recommended. [DVD]
DVD Release Date: 1/12/10