Monday, August 3, 2009

Review of Big Fan

This review previously appeared in ICON, and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Suprisingly good movie, here, folks. If you liked The Wrestler, this is right up your alley.

Two of my longtime passions are sports and film, but my fanaticism is served with a chaser of reality. I'm only concerned with the entertainment presented in front of me.
I have no desire to meet Kate Winslet or LeBron James in a social setting. What would we possibly have in common? Idolatry is shaky grounds for friendship, and both are so PR-savvy that I'd be lucky to get either of them to speak beyond platitudes.

That skepticism is an unknown concept for Paul Aufiero, a die-hard New York Giants fan to the point that following the game isn't a vacation, but a permanent home complete with team jerseys, hats, and cell phone holders. That kind of fandom is usually played for laughs (see, or rather endure, 2005's Fever Pitch), but director/writer Robert Siegel examines a darker, more compelling angle in Big Fan.

Paul (Patton Oswalt) clearly needs something to distract him from his sad regular life as a garage attendant. In his mid-thirties. Who lives at home with his disappointed mom (Marcia Jean Kurtz). In Staten Island. But as a fan, it's different. He spends his nights at the garage polishing rants to a late-night sports radio show, where no one talks back and where the host always appreciates the passion of "Paul from Staten Island." And he's not alone. During some Sundays in the football season, Paul and his best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) trek to Giants Stadium, walking among the tailgaters before watching the game on TV in the parking lot.

The season is progressing nicely, when Paul spots his favorite player, Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), across the street filling up his tank. Paul and Sal follow Bishop and his entourage to a posh Manhattan strip club. Clearly out of their element--Paul is amazed at the city traffic and the club's $9 Buds--they study Bishop while refusing lapdances.

Paul finally summons the confidence to approach Bishop, who is friendly at first. But when the friendly fan unveils his stalker tendencies, Bishop attacks Paul, who awakens three days later in the hospital. (One of the first questions out of Paul's mouth is about the team's past game: "How did we do?") Because of the incident, Bishop is suspended, and Paul feels the heat. The police are investigating and want him to talk, while his slimy attorney brother (Gino Cafarelli) urges Paul to sue. And without Bishop, the Giants begin losing. Even worse, Paul's call-in nemesis, Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport), reveals Paul's identity on the air.

In his directorial debut, Siegel (who wrote The Wrestler) again looks at the losing side of sports, focusing on Paul and his changed life. It's an unsettling, memorable profile. Sports were a passionate respite until Paul blended them by approaching Bishop. Now, Paul's safe haven is under attack by others--the cops, the press, his litigious brother, his fed-up mother. What was his salvation has become the bane of his existence. As the movie progresses, Paul damn near loses his mind as he loses the balance in his life. All Paul wants is for Bishop to play, while once again being part of the maddening, anonymous crowd. Only a desperate act--involving a trip to the enemy territory of Philadelphia--will make things right.

Like he did in The Wrestler, Siegel offers an array of clues on his main character's shabby state, and why a life change is out of the question. Paul still sleeps with a football blanket that's clearly from childhood. His reaction to New York traffic shows that Paul has little curiosity to wander outside his front lawn. And what sports fan still relies on newspapers? Anyone who loves sports knows that the Internet has become essential for information and gossip. Paul doesn't even have Internet access, which would certainly help with his nighttime masturbatory routine.

With his short, pudgy physique and gnomish face, Oswalt looks like a guy who has forever gotten the short end of the stick. On the surface, his work as Paul resembles his benign stint on the long-running sitcom, The King of Queens. But the actor/comedian finds a different level, surprising us with his intensity and despair. You're so thoroughly convinced of Paul's zealotry, and you're hooked as it morphs into a disturbing, troubling form of self-denial. The supporting roles are impeccably cast, with an emphasis on rough-around-the-edges authenticity. Corrigan is a hoot as Paul's doltish friend, as is Rapaport, who has played yammering meatballs like Philadelphia Phil for years.

After The Wrestler, some might say that Big Fan is an easy follow-up for Siegel, another attempt to profile the forgotten and unwanted of the sports world. Yes, they're easy targets, but Siegel shows them as people without resorting to cheap laughs or parody. Everything feels painfully true in Big Fan, which is about a guy hopelessly lost in his religion. Does it really matter if it involves replica NFL jerseys and face paint? [R]

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