The word “fan” is short for “fanatic,” a casual abbreviation that doesn’t imply the extreme, uncritical zeal of a fanatic. Most people are fans of a musician, TV show, or sports team, but a rare few would cop to being fanatics.
Big Fan, the directorial debut of The Wrestler scribe Robert Siegel, is a character study of a fanatic. The titular character is Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswald), a NY Giants devotee who works as a parking garage attendant and lives in Staten Island with his mother. Siegel (who also wrote the film) painstakingly illustrates the sad life Paul has crafted for himself, from the shrine to his favorite player to the moisturizer on the nightstand. The minutiae and the cinema vérité style give us a well-formed character in a very specific place. The same can be said of Paul’s friend (singular, Kevin Corrigan perfectly cast as Sal) and family, from his bus bench defense lawyer brother to his orange-tanned, fake-titted sister-in-law. Siegel’s grip on Staten Island is as tight as it was on Elizabeth, NJ in The Wrestler, with a wintery, jaundiced palette.
Paul’s life revolves around the Giants. Paul and Sal are too broke for tickets, so they tailgate and experience the game from the parking lot. The highlight of his day is calling sports talk radio and spitting out his rehearsed diatribes, even if his mother interrupts his late night calls, without fail.
A chance encounter with Quantrell Bishop, Giants linebacker and Paul’s idol, should be the highlight of his pathetic life. Following Bishop’s crew from Staten (“Maybe he’s here to see the Wu-Tang,” Paul ponders unironically) to a NYC strip club, Paul and Sal embark on a homoerotic Hardy Boys adventure. They try to get Bishop’s attention, and when buying him a drink doesn’t do the trick, Paul improvises. However, when the ruse of this chance encounter is revealed, Bishop flies off the handle and viciously beats Paul.
The beatdown doesn’t affect his fanaticism. On waking from a three day coma, Paul’s first questions are Giants related. Much to his dismay, Bishop has been suspended indefinitely. Without their playmaker, the foundering G-men can’t keep it together – and neither can Paul. A case study in battered woman syndrome, Paul still wears his attacker’s jersey, and even blames himself for the assault. He lies to the cops to protect Bishop, and refuses to sue, which is the first instinct of his scumbag brother, who instigates a lawsuit anyway. Things are spiraling out of control. The after-effects of the hematoma are not pretty; Siegel utilizes a disorienting, feedback-heavy soundtrack to great effect here.
Whats left of Paul’s life is ruined when his on-air nemesis, “Philadelphia Phil,” outs “Paul from Staten” as the victim of the attack. Paul finally takes things into his own hands, going undercover in an Eagles bar, armed and ready to confront Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport in another bit of choice casting: as a loud-mouthed d-bag). What does Paul have left to lose, as the clocks ticks and the “Giants suck” chants crescendo? Suffice to say, the film takes a bit of a film-school turn during the finale, but stays true to its characters.
Big Fan isn’t Misery or The Fan; Paul isn’t a psychopath, he’s a man-child, very happy with a life others find unfulfilling. Maybe watching the film in a post-Jersey Shore world tainted the experience. I’ve definitely had my fill of douchebags from NY/NJ. But still, it probably says more about the quality of the “real” people of Jersey Shore than the caricatures that Siegel has crafted. As a character study, it presents a modern, less exploitative look into fanaticism. As a film, however, it displays some of the paint-by-numbers filmmaking expected from a first time director – the only thing that kept me from enjoying it more.
Three and a half out of five footballs.