Patton Oswalt, in 'Big Fan'

Dir. Robert D. Siegel
(2009, R, 86 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

I saw Invictus one week ago; it’s a big-scale sports movie with small ideas, taking its Big Issues and reducing them to simplistic cliches about courage, adversity, and other words in Hallmark cards. Now I’ve seen its polar opposite. From Robert D. Siegel, making a fantastic directing debut, Big Fan is a small-scale drama that runs infinitely deeper. It’s a great, sad film about an inauspicious man devoted to football for lack of anything else.

Patton Oswalt, heretofore a stand-up comedian and an actor in more lighthearted roles, gives a breakthrough performance as Paul Aufiero, a Staten Island parking booth attendant who lives for the New York Giants — and that might not be a figure of speech. He’s a regular guest on a late-night radio call-in show, for which he spends much of his work shifts writing and revising remarks. At 36-years-old, he still lives with his mother, who wishes he were more like his brother, a civil litigator with a buxom wife and his own TV commercial. Paul resents them when they try to help; they look down on him.

In football he has an insular sphere of success by proxy. He’s well-known on the radio. He has authoritative knowledge of stats. He can’t afford tickets to the games, but he drives to the stadium with his best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) and watches on a TV from the parking lot, and he’s helping them win, dammit! He’s their good-luck charm, the wind beneath their wings, their biggest fan. His fervid devotion makes him part of the team whether they know it or not. When they’re winning, he’s winning, and he doesn’t think so much about how little else he’s achieved. When he calls the radio, he’s frequently interrupted by his mother, urging him to be quiet while she’s trying to sleep in the next room, and reality breaks through a little.

He gets a chance to meet his favorite player, Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm). The signs that it will end very badly are visible to anyone in the audience, but not to him. The Quantrell we see makes a stop in a bad part of town, does drugs in the restroom of a strip club — he comes out of a stall sniffling, and he doesn’t have a head cold — and drinks copiously with his posse in the VIP section. Paul just sees his hero. If I buy him a drink he’ll want to hang out with me.

The encounter ends violently, Quantrell is suspended from the team, and Paul really does become embroiled in the Giants’ season. How he reacts to the assault is pitiable, but not surprising. It’s indicative of his self-worth. He lives for the team.

Siegel, formerly the editor-in-chief of The Onion, previously wrote the script for The Wrestler and shows a knack for getting to the heart of men on the outskirts of sports glory — desperate men trying to hold on to something that isn’t there. He directs Oswalt to a performance almost as good as Mickey Rourke’s in the previous film, and that is high praise. Oswalt plays Paul as a man stubbornly devoted to his illusions and harboring anger he doesn’t know where or how to direct. Most of it goes to his family. Some he reserves for Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport), an Eagles supporter whom Paul seeks out in scenes of agonizing tension. It’s all to avoid the shame of looking inward. Dead-end job. Disappointed mother. No love life to speak of. But when he looks at the game schedule for the Giants’ next season, he’s optimistic. It’s gonna be a great year.

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