Making his directorial debut after writing the screenplay for the Oscar nominated The Wrestler, Robert Siegel returns to his apparent comfort and understanding of the low-life fringe participators‚Äô sports world. It‚Äôs regrettable that Big Fan is a not-good-enough portrait of lower class Northeastern sports loyalty and obsession. Sure, it‚Äôs a wholly authentic and believable entrenchment into the sports bar, gutter-rat football culture, but with a vacant, hollowed-out core.
Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) is a parking garage booth worker, an overweight basement dweller and a massive New York Giants fan. He scribbles down a script to call into the local late night sports talk radio show where he‚Äôs made a name for himself ‚Äď a mainstay simply known as ‚ÄėPaul in Staten Island‚Äô. He and his best friend, Sal (Kevin Corrigan), go to the Meadowlands for every home game, only to sit in the parking lot come kickoff, watching it on TV.
One night, while snacking on foldable pizza slices, Paul and Sal spot a familiar face across the street at the gas station ‚Äď it‚Äôs Quantrell Bishop, the Giants‚Äô fictional pro-bowl linebacker. Star struck, the pair quickly tail Bishop‚Äôs car to a Manhattan nightclub in Paul‚Äôs mom‚Äôs beaten-up, red hatchback. Once inside, Paul and Sal observe Bishop and his hefty entourage from a distance, contemplating how to get his attention until they finally work up enough courage to approach the group at their elevated back table.
As a result of a misunderstanding in which Bishop categorizes Paul and Sal as threatening stalkers, Paul is brutally beaten and hospitalized with a concussion and a baseball-sized black eye ‚Äď his face and his Giants loyalty taking equal blows. However, once back at home, Paul is hesitant to file charges against Bishop when he learns of the Giants‚Äô losing streak and their disciplined star player now indefinitely suspended. With a lawsuit in the balance, he is forced to choose between team success and life success ‚Äď prosperity on the field or off it.
One certainly worthy trait of Big Fan is the performance of Oswalt as Paul Aufiero. With his indefinable haircut, stubby limbs and puffy features, he‚Äôs a model for obsession. Someone who is either so caught up in their own passion that they‚Äôve failed to maintain simple self-preservation or a social outcast who has turned to the one thing he truly loves. Oswalt, a recognizable TV character actor (‚ÄúThe King of Queens‚ÄĚ, ‚ÄúThe United States of Tera‚ÄĚ) is perhaps best known to the film-going world for lending his voice to Remy, the ambitious rat of Ratatouille. It‚Äôs good to see a relative unknown getting their face out in the open and pulling it off. Oswalt is so convincing as this hypersensitive fan that I almost half expect him to be at the Meadowlands every Sunday this season.
Behind the camera for the first time, Siegel captures the cold and uninviting staleness of a Staten Island winter effortlessly. The sun, if out at all, always seems to shine a stark white with windows as intrusive entry points. Using nosy close-ups, he also finds the untidy features of the actors‚Äô pale and lifeless features, all contributing to Big Fan‚Äôs unmistakable clarity for the hopeless and the weak. But the film misses even where it hits. There are too many self-reflective bus rides, too many call-in interruptions by Paul‚Äôs slumbering mother and just a forceful, over-exultant sense of pity attempting to be bought through repetition.
In Siegel‚Äôs script for The Wrestler, he made a poignant, emotional and occasionally beautiful film under the sure-handed guidance of Darren Aronofsky. Where that film felt humanistic, tragic and defined, Big Fan feels a bit self-loathing, redundant and curiously weightless. Paul, played wonderfully by Patton Oswalt, is a sympathetic character, but Paul is never given any real retribution or reward for his devout faith and the climax is absurdly unsatisfying ‚Äď a disappointing end to a well-intended, but minor debut.