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“I can’t tell you how sick I am,” says a voice somewhere inside a nearly empty parking garage, practicing a line from a script.
So begins Big Fan, Robert D. Siegel’s directorial debut and one of the few films to mine the emotional disconnection that hides behind America’s obsession with sports and celebrity. (Siegel, a former editor-in-chief of The Onion, wrote one of the others, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.) To Siegel’s great credit, he lives up to the promise of the film’s first line, never telling us outright the source of the madness exhibited by Patton Oswalt’s Paul Aufiero. Instead, Big Fan plays almost like a nature film, with Siegel’s camera capturing his subject in an insomniac’s half-light, showing the parking lot attendant as he navigates an existence predicated entirely on obsessing over New York’s football Giants and occasionally hyping them on AM sports talk, where he’s known as “Paul in Staten Island.” He lives with his mother and has no goals outside of writing a decent script for his radio appearances and making it to the parking lot of Giants Stadium on game day with his one friend and enabler, Sal, played by indie mainstay Kevin Corrigan. Tickets to the actual game? Not even a passing thought.
Paul describes himself as the world’s biggest Giants fan, but really, he’s defined by what he hates: the Eagles, his family, root beer, and Hawaiian pizza, which he won’t even try. “I don’t need to taste piss to know it tastes like piss,” he says, one of his many defenses of his myopic life view. He has the narcissism of a super fan unable to see the real world beyond his own obsessions, which is why he thinks nothing of sidling up to his favorite player at a Manhattan strip club, a move that leads to a vicious assault that changes his life forever—or, more tellingly, not that much.
Oswalt—lauded as a comedian and tweeter but still a criminally undervalued dramatic actor—refuses to squeeze a drop of self-pity into his portrayal of Paul, a man who jazzes up his Coke by mixing in a packet of sugar. An outsider might peg him a loser, but in his own mind he has figured everything out and actually leads a pretty good life, provided his team is on top.
The cynicism in Big Fan’s soul is real and it’s pitch black: the movie’s message, at least in part, is that for common folk, our only heroic option is to take our beat downs gladly and without complaint. But the film’s most shocking element may just be its tenderness. You see it in Oswalt’s smile as it spreads across the screen in the film’s ultimate scene, and in the seemingly incongruous old pop songs that Siegel places strategically throughout his story—John Cale’s “Big White Cloud, Helen Reddy’s “Delta Dawn”— to illustrate Paul’s longing for connection.
In the judgment-free way it shows addiction and affable self-destruction as it plays out in the parts of New York no one talks about, the movie is first cousin to Steve Buscemi’s achingly beautiful 1997 ode to saloon life, Trees Lounge. And once Paul begins to focus his rage and the hopelessness of a lost season on his talk radio tormentor Philadelphia Phil (played with joie-de-obnoxiousness by Manhattan-born Michael Rappaport), Big Fan takes on shades of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. While not a comedy, Big Fan is lighter on its feet than either of those films: Siegel and Oswalt bring comedians’ command of rhythm to what in other hands would be a tragic tale. Tragic, that is, to everyone but Paul in Staten Island. For him, there’s always next season.