Patton Oswalt’s mainstream appeal comes from roles in crowd-pleasing programs such as The King of Queens and high profile film releases, most notably Ratatouille. Yet in his primary career as a standup comic, Oswalt finds endless inspiration in the obsessive details of cultural fringes. From comic book collectors to Easter egg dyers to Stella D’oro advertisement writers, no activity or segment of society extends too far outside the mainstream for his comic reach. His breakthrough live action film role in Robert Siegel’s Big Fan combines these two modes by imagining one fan’s intense obsession with a popular sport (American football).
As New York Giants super-fan Paul Aufiero, Oswalt appears as a version of the man-child character he frequently plays in other projects. Paul, in his mid-30s, works as a parking lot attendant and lives with his mother. Most around him sense and criticize his lack of social development. His one close friend, Sal (Kevin Corrigan), shares his love for the Giants but is less bold in the lengths he will go to express it. Several times within the film, we see Paul reciting arduously composed, yet inane, claims over the phone to a sports radio show. Sal, in his own bedroom elsewhere in the city, listens and quietly cheers to Paul’s speeches.
Unable to afford game tickets, Paul and Sal never get too close to the action, but that doesn’t inhibit their zeal. One of the film’s best pieces of visual storytelling is the reveal of how the two men experience the game: sitting in an empty tailgating lot with a television propped on the car and tuned to the game. Siegel’s lean script uses the initial circumstances (of experiencing one’s passion from a distance) to heighten the impact of the subsequent main conflict.
By chance, Paul and Sal spot a favorite player, linebacker Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), near one of their pizza hangouts. They impulsively follow the player and his entourage from Staten Island to Stapleton, and then to a gentlemen’s club in Manhattan. As this sequence leads to the inevitably embarrassing “big fan” moment, Siegel and the actors deliver a series of small but insightful moments that convey what a working class person will endure to catch a glimpse of the good life. They empty their wallets for parking, admission, and drinks, but this does not allow them to belong.
Paul’s single-minded attention focused on Bishop, already suggested by the poster of the player that dominates his small bedroom, reaches a tipping point in this scene. However, this crucial moment within the film is handled rather clumsily. Paul’s invasion of Bishop’s space — his attempt to prove his devotion as a “big fan” — turns sour when he offers up that he and Sal have been following Bishop all night. Even in the peculiar world of this story, the information comes out much too easily and rings falsely rather than awkwardly. Perceived as a threat, this admission makes Bishop paranoid, and he viciously beats Paul. The staging of the fight is also unconvincing. Perhaps Siegel intended to create a disorienting tone, but the effect is that the entire film seems to lose footing temporarily.
After the fight scene, the film regains focus by craftily escalating other troubles that stem from the central conflict. Members of Paul’s mostly inconsiderate family — especially his lawyer brother — begin to show an interest in benefiting from his misfortune. A detective (Matt Servitto) needs his firsthand account of the attack in order to move forward with the investigation. Yet just as before the doomed run-in with his idol, Paul’s primary concern is for his team to do well, so his overarching dilemma is to be stuck between avenging the wrong and supporting his team. With Bishop benched indefinitely as a direct result of the attack, Paul feels the weight of his team’s impending failure.
Another point the film accurately explores is the complex sort of isolation and depression that a character like Paul would suffer in this situation. Oswalt is at his best in this section of the film, which requires him not to simply be glum, but to operate with the kind of dark power that comes from acknowledging the strange control he has inherited. It is ultimately the maintenance of that control that drives the rest of the film. The third act involves an opponent who has theretofore been faceless. Michael Rapaport’s Philadelphia Phil is Paul’s archrival on the airwaves. When Phil publicly threatens to destroy all semblance of power and respect Paul wields, Paul is finally motivated to action. His Hail Mary play against Philadelphia Paul is the film’s most exciting sequence and an expertly paced manipulation of the audience’s own thirst for vengeance.
Although Big Fan is not totally satisfying as a comedy/drama, and certainly not a traditional “crowd pleaser” (as the pull quote and DVD art would have you believe), the film should be commended for not judging or too broadly patronizing Paul’s devotion to his team. His decidedly maladjusted lifestyle might not be desirable for most people, but Siegel’s script seems to advocate for underdog Paul’s happiness, however and wherever he finds it. Although Oswalt is certainly up to the challenge of this role, the supporting cast takes advantage of the many opportunities to steal scenes. Marcia Jean Kurtz, Rapaport, and especially Corrigan all do fine work here. The inclusion of real-life sports radio personality Scott Ferrall as the host of Paul’s favorite show provides an added touch of verisimilitude that makes Siegel’s script sound even more genuine.
Two of the DVD special features are particularly worthwhile. A post-screening Q & A session with Oswalt and Siegel covers their careers in general, inspirations for the film and characters, as well as a discussion of the attention paid to portraying a realistic working-class environment. The writer/director and actor come close to undermining the film’s message when they criticize the character’s level of intelligence and the physical appearance of those living in Staten Island.
Overall, though, they appear to have enough of a sense of humor about themselves to make any creeping snobbery tolerable. As in the film, it is Corrigan who entertains most within his special feature. Also shot during a Q & A period following a screening of the film, Corrigan tells a detailed story of his own teenage “big fan” incident with Robert De Niro. After hearing this tale, there is no doubt that Corrigan understands the bittersweet world of this film all too well.