My favorite film of 2008 was “The Wrestler,” and a big part of what I loved about it was the unadorned ’70s aesthetic of both the visual approach and the narrative simplicity. One of the things that Patton Oswalt and I bonded over when we first started talking about movies a decade ago was our love of the ’70s, when you could make a movie about a loser without any need to soften the blow. So when you take Patton Oswalt and you put him in a movie from the screenwriter of “The Wrestler” that’s about a ’70s style loser, that’s a recipe for something that smells pretty damn good to me.
Robert Siegel first gained attention as a writer for The Onion, which intrigues me. It would have been more logical for him to be building a career out of film comedy. But with “The Wrestler” and now “Big Fan,” he seems to have something else on his mind. He seems to be attracted to people who are their own worst enemies, and he has a knack for it. Still, with “The Wrestler,” I suspected that much of what I loved had to do with Mickey Rourke’s performance or Darren Aronofsky’s direction. Now that Siegel’s both writing and directing his own material, I’ve got a better idea of what his sensibilities are, and I’m ready to add him to my personal list of filmmakers worth paying attention to in the future.
“Big Fan” tells the story of Paul Aufiero, a clenched fist of a guy who really only has one thing in his life: the New York Giants. His whole identity is wrapped up in the annual performance of his team, and his one outlet seems to be calling in to a sports radio talk show ever single night. It’s not much of a life, but Paul claims it’s all he wants, no matter how much his mother browbeats him. Casting Patton is a masterstroke because he brings such a specific physical presence to the role. Most of the time, when Hollywood casts someone as working class, it doesn’t work. The actors are always too pretty, too put together. But Patton looks like a real person, a bulldog with perpetual stomach issues, and he’s got this pursed-lip pout that sticks six inches out from the front of his face. He looks like a guy who already knows what the world’s going to do to him, so he’s not about to give it the chance. He doesn’t date, so he can’t be rejected. He has no career ambition, so he can’t be disappointed. All he cares about is seeing the Giants win their season… or, barring that, at least doing better than the Goddamn Philadelphia Eagles. His arch-enemy is another talk-radio call-in regular who calls himself Philadelphia Phil, and under normal circumstances, things would just keep simmering along, season after season.
But one night, Paul’s out with his buddy Sal (the always-great Kevin Corrigan) and they spot Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) at the gas station across the street. Bishop’s the quarterback for the Giants, their greatest hope for a championship. Paul wants to meet his idol, so he and Sal hop in their car and follow him, waiting for the right opportunity. They follow him to a drug deal, then later to a strip club, and when Paul finally does come face-to-face with him, he says the exact wrong thing, infuriating Bishop so that the quarterback beats him so badly Paul has to be hospitalized. Bishop ends up benched while the police investigate the attack, and Paul finds himself playing a direct role in the fate of his favorite team for the first time in his life.
“Big Fan” may take place against the backdrop of sports fandom, but it doesn’t have to. It could just as easily be about a movie nerd or a political junkie. Sports makes sense here, though, because Paul’s so blatantly powerless in his life. His brother Jeff (Gino Cafarelli) may be an ambulance-chasing greaseball with a nakedly materialistic bimbo wife named Gina (Serafina Fiore), but at least he’s got a business, a life, some sense of forward momentum. Paul lives with his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz), while Jeff has a huge house of his own. It’s obvious that Paul’s mother is disappointed in him, but the more she pushes, the harder he digs in his heels. He’s proud of his inertia, satisfied with the life he’s made for himself. He doesn’t want more than he has, more than his parking garage attendant job. He considers his nightly phone call to the talk radio show to be his “real” work, and watching him compose and rehearse his calls brings to mind the fervor I sensed in the most sociopathic talkbackers. And just as I sense in those same talkbackers the desire to somehow influence the making of the movies they watch, Paul wants desperately to somehow be linked to the success of the Giants. And while he doesn’t pick the way his fate becomes entwined with theirs, he is at least aware enough to exploit the opportunity once it arrives.
This is a very small film, and there’s a rough hand-held quality to the filmamking. What impresses me most is the way Siegel builds tension over the course of the movie. What happens when you take away the one thing that defines someone, the only thing that gives them any joy? When someone has nothing to lose, what exactly are they capable of doing? Siegel makes you wait for the answer to that question, turning up the anxiety bit by bit. And I love that there’s nothing learned in the question. Paul doesn’t become a better person. There’s no lesson for him about how he should be living. The movie doesn’t exist to make an example of Paul… it’s simply observing this damaged life on camera, and it succeeds in that. “Big Fan” may frustrate you if you’re looking for an overt comedy, but if what you want is a grim little character study, this should hit the spot, and I’m curious to see what else Siegel’s got planned in the future.