Everyone obsesses about something. Whether we admit it or not, there’s a super fan buried in all of us. Hobbies fill our lives with something other than bills, weather and being on time for work. Yet, as they say, too much of anything is a bad thing, and it is possible to garner an obsession with anything: movies, sports, television, comic books, pornography, shopping, your job, your kids, your religious beliefs. Even personal obsessions like rage, self-pity, gossip or just simply complaining. However, I think most of us have a filter. We know when to turn it off before it tips over into darkness.
Paul, the central figure of Big Fan, has a filter with a lining that is dangerously thin. His whole existence is so wrapped up in his love for the New York Giants that all the other things in his life have been thinned down to make room for his favorite team. He is 35, chubby, lives in Staten Island with his mother and works as a parking garage attendant, where he spends his nights writing himself a script for what he is going to say on the Sports Dogg radio program where is such a frequent caller that he has become a minor celebrity. He has no social life to speak of and his mother comments that is only romantic attachment is with his right hand. She’s wrong, of course.
It can be said that there are two sides to Paul’s life, an inner circle and an outer circle. The inner circle contains his love of The Giants, the outer circle contains a void in which resides everything else: family, work, the future. That shows up on his face where his face lights up when he is in the throws of the game and grow dark and frustrated when he has to deal with real life. His mother nags him mercilessly that he needs to find a nice girl and have a family. “I don’t want any of that!” he shouts – he already has a family. She dotes on her other son, Jeff (Gino Cafarelli) who is an ambulance- chasing lawyer who appears in daytime television commercial asking “Have you been injured?” and promises “I will fight for you!” Paul’s best (and apparently only) friend is Sal (Kevin Corrigan) who joins him in his love of the team, even when the two sit in the cold in the parking lot of Giants stadium watching the game on a portable television set. They talk about nothing else. Their rapture is the thrill of fandom, even in the off-season.
A test of Paul’s faith and loyalty begins one night when he is out driving around with Sal and spots Giants quarterback Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) at a gas station. They follow him into a rough neighborhood where they don’t make the connection that he and his entourage have come to buy drugs. Later at a strip club they introduce themselves. Bishop suspects that they are cops about to bust him and he beats Paul into unconsciousness.
Where Big Fan really comes to its crossroads is what happens next. Paul wakes up in a hospital with brain injury and a room full of people urging him to sue Bishop. He learns that Bishop might not be able to play in the next game and decides not to sue or to turn over any information to the cops. This is, of course, baffling to those around him but to Paul it would upset the balance of his world. Bishop is a personal hero and Paul wrestles with this soul over whether or not to give him up.
The events that take place with Bishop only make up the framework for Big Fan which is more about the turmoil of Paul’s conscience. His hero failed and he has him in the cross-hairs to get him in a lot of trouble. His depression and frustration pull him in both directions, but for him it is all about not upsetting the balance. Giants football isn’t a game, it is a conduit of his life and his self-worth. Anything outside that sphere is, for him, meaningless.
Big Fanwas written and directed by Robert Siegel, a former editor of The Onion and screenwriter of The Wrestler, also about a man and the sport he loves. I was fascinated by the fact that his screenplay keeps the story at a realistic level. Even when it approaches the bizarre at the end, we can still believe what we are seeing. It might be easy for this screenplay to become a stalker film or to cross over into the level of Taxi Driver. It comes close to that, but it stays mostly at ground level. What happens to Paul in the end isn’t far from the truth.
What makes Big Fan really work though is the performance of Patton Oswald as Paul. Oswalt is a stand-up comedian best known to most movie fans as the voice of Remey in Pixar’s Ratatouille. Here he creates a character that looks like your average sports fan. He is short, overweight, with a bad haircut and an otherwise not-too-extraordinary appearance. Even in the darkest moments, Paul is someone that we can’t help but like.