Advance Film Review: Sundance Fave “Big Fan” – Directorial Debut of writer of “The Wrestler”

In order to get good advanced buzz, the publicity company behind “Big Fan,” a film about an obsessed sports fan, offered screeners to sports blogs.  I jumped on the opportunity since not only had I heard good word of mouth about the film, I also greatly enjoyed writer/director Robert Siegel’s previous writing credit, “The Wrestler.”  Okay, maybe “enjoy” is not the right word to describe my experience seeing “The Wrestler” since it’s basically about Mickey Rourke’s character just having the crap beaten out of him both emotionally and physically.  However, it was a darn powerful movie experience.  “Big Fan” packs the same wallop, but without the star having to get stapled.

The film, which opens in NYC & Philly on August 28th and then LA (and maybe wider?) on Sept 11, stars comedian Patton Oswalt.  Although Siegel got his start writing for The Onion, don’t let the comedy background of these two men fool you: this is no comedy.  Sure, there are some funny moments, moments that both sports fans and non-sports fans will enjoy, but this is one dark Momma.  The tone is very similar to “The Wrestler.”  Siegel seems to have definitely honed his chops there, learning extremely well from that film’s amazing director, Darren Aronofsky.  Aronofsky had always been extremely skilled at beating up on his characters and putting the audience through the wringer as he showed in “Requiem Of A Dream.”  As masterful and visceral as “Requiem” was, it lacked the emotional humanity of “The Wrestler.”  Clearly Siegel was a big factor in bringing in that humanity, as it is also fully apparent in “Big Fan.”

Oswalt stars as Paul Aufiero, a 35-year-old who still lives with his mother.  His whole life revolves around the NY Giants.  He spends his day in a tiny booth as a parking garage attendant, listening to a sports radio show and writing “spontaneous” comebacks to call in when he gets home.  He particularly likes to go after another caller, “Philadelphia Phil,” who riles up the New York audience by saying how great the Eagles are.  One night, Paul and his best friend Sal (played by indie stalwart Kevin Corrigan) spot their favorite Giants’ player, star linebacker, Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm).  When they finally build up the courage to approach him for an autograph, a misunderstanding results in a dark, scary encounter.  The film is about his struggle with the reality of what happened versus his love for the Giants.  I’m trying not to give away plot specifics, so sorry if my writing’s awkward or unclear but bear with me here.

While big sports geeks will relate to his character more than non-sports fans, it’s really a universal story.  Basically it’s like asking what if the person you love more than anything else in the world, someone you’d die for, what if that person did something awful?  How could you reconcile those two sides of your love?  For people like myself and y’all who read sports blogs, obviously we have a certain passion and love for sports with which non-sport fans can’t relate.  So for those non-true believers they might watch this movie and go, duh, forget the team.  For you and I, it wouldn’t be that easy a choice?  We become obsessed about our team and our heroes who play for them, and we refuse to see otherwise.  How many Laker fans don’t believe Kobe could’ve raped that woman in Colorado?  How many football fans still think OJ Simpson is innocent?  How many abused women remain in marriages to evil men who they think love them?  Okay, okay, I went a bit far there, being a Kobe fan is not like being in an abusive relationship, but y’all get what I’m trying to say, don’t ya?

Anyway, truth is I actually think the movie could be stronger if Paul wasn’t such a social misfit whose only care in life is the Giants.  It makes it too easy to otherize the story and say, oh, it’s about this fringe person in society.  Truth is, Paul could be a normal guy (or gal) like you or me.  Someone in a healthy adult relationship with someone of the opposite sex, someone who has a respectable job, but again like us, like many, many people across the globe, the guy/gal loves sports.  Instead, by having Paul being a bit out there, it becomes more an interesting character study of a quirky individual rather than something that makes us look into our own souls to examine whether we have a line we wouldn’t cross.

Sorry, enough waxing all philosophical-like, and back to more traditional review stuff.  The film is nicely shot, with a nice harsh graniness that emphasizes the depressing reality of this life.  Siegel, unlike many directors who come up the ranks from shooting videos and commercials, assuredly allows shots to linger.  And surprisingly for a writer, he’s not afraid to have quiet moments where the images and body language tell the story rather than verbiage.  That being said, as nice as it is, it did feel like there were moments that dragged a bit in the middle.  Oswalt, for his part, is a revelation.  There is no vanity in this performance and he lets it all hang out.  He continues the fine indie film tradition of the dumpy, pathetic everyman, following in the footsteps of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti.  Them’s some nice footsies to follow.

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