by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Robert Siegel, U.S., First Independent Pictures
“It was very simple really. Where I could not, with syntax, give shape to my fantasies, [New York Giant Frank] Gifford could, with his superb timing, his great hands, his uncanny faking, give shape to his. It was something more than this: I cheered for him with such inordinate enthusiasm, my yearning became so involved with his desire to escape life’s bleak anonymity, that after a time he became my alter ego, that part of me which had its being in the competitive world of men; I came, as incredible as it seems to me now, to believe that I was, in some magical way, an actual instrument of his success.”— Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes
“It is man’s particularly unhappy aptitude to see to it that his fate is shared.”— ibid.
Sports fandom is rarely depicted in the movies, but whenever it is it’s usually portrayed as the domain of obsessive, stunted, sociopathic creeps. This is a shame because sports fandom is actually a rich repository of irrational devotion for otherwise perfectly normal folk. The fact is that most American sports fans aren’t Travis Bickle–esque stalkers who go postal when let down by their favorite athletes (Bill Simmons recently wrote a terrific article about how fandom in the U.S. is on a far milder level than that of most other nations), but regular Joes who seek communion with something outside their immediate control in lieu of the less exciting transcendence offered by organized religion.
The Onion Movie and The Wrestler screenwriter Robert Siegel’s directorial debut, Big Fan, is yet another hackneyed take on the sports-fan subgenre. Whereas something like Frederick Exley’s quasi-memoir A Fan’s Notes—perhaps the best explication ever committed to print about what it means to be a fan—places the author’s mania for the New York Giants on the same level as all of life’s excessive ridiculousness, Big Fan raises its protagonist’s love of the same football team to the far reaches of childishness and insanity, the point where we no longer relate to that love and instead look down on him for being a disturbed sad-sack. The nuanced moods of the average fan are thus once again disappointingly overlooked in favor of the idiocies of an anomalous case study.
Our superfan in question is one Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt, whose portly man-child frame works well to evoke pathetic), still living at the Staten Island home of his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz) and calling up sports talk-radio programs to spout the latest pro-Giants diatribe he pretends to make up on the spot but actually carefully pens while working his parking attendant job. Paul worships the Giants, but can’t even get into see the games—he and fellow loser Sal (Kevin Corrigan) watch them on television in the parking lot of the Meadowlands. One night Paul and Sal spot their hero, defensive tackle Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm)—Paul, like a ten-year-old, owns a poster—and follow him to a Manhattan strip club where, after an awkward introduction and then a silly misunderstanding, Bishop pummels Paul into a three-day coma.
If Siegel’s film were fair, and more ambitious, it would have delved into the profound disillusionment Paul suffers when confronted with his idol’s complete disregard for the admirers who make him a star, something most fans must do around the time they hit adolescence. But Big Fan goes in a far less interesting direction, as Paul’s dilemma of whether to press charges and sue Bishop eats away at him, his shyster lawyer brother (Gino Cafarelli) files the papers himself and exposes Paul’s shame to the world, the Bishop-less Giants tank, and Paul in turn travels to Philadelphia to take revenge on rival sports-talk caller Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport), who celebrates the Giants’ collapse with sore winner immodesty.
Siegel’s nailed the details of Paul’s life, if not its grander meaning. The family of passionate overnight sports-talk radio callers to whom he belongs is hilariously spot-on: the scratchy-voiced radio host “the Dog” is an obvious parody of one half of WFAN’s famous former Mike and the Mad Dog team, but more impressively Siegel captures the insulated havens these forums provide for grown men who need to act like taunting boys, bragging, complaining, and passing unearned judgment upon their teams and players. Paul is further insulated in his Italian Staten Island conclave, where the ludicrous enhancements of his brother’s trophy wife, Gina (Serafina Fiore), and the condiment-saving habits of his mother satirize dreary middle-class aspiration and routine—that Siegel refuses to oversell Gina’s balloon-sized fake tits (no unnecessary close-ups) speaks well of his ability to let Paul’s surroundings speak for itself.
Such touches clearly prove Siegel an observant writer (though I didn’t care much for his maudlin script for The Wrestler). But Big Fan is a visual mess, one of the sloppiest looking things to have received theatrical distribution that I’ve come across in a long while. At times little concern is given to cutting away when the camera has drifted from what we should be looking at, and the movie contains long stretches of poor coverage. When Bishop stomps Paul the action is rendered as a clunky exchange of ineptly feigned physical exertions; when Paul tries to spot Philadelphia Phil in a bar the search becomes needlessly prolonged.
Big Fan has larger problems, however, starting with its pathetic cop-out ending. Siegel clearly wishes to avoid any Taxi Driver clichés of psychotic, delusional revenge, but by making Paul’s act of retribution a charming if menacing prank he only confuses matters. Portrayed as a victim driven to extremes by a cold, cruel world, the Giants worshiper whimpers, “You didn’t have to be mean” while spraying Philadelphia Phil with red and blue paint from an ersatz gun. If Paul killed Phil it would have actually complicated our sympathy for the lovable loser, but this self-pitying display only reeks of hypocrisy since Paul would have been just as mean had the Giants ousted the Eagles from a playoff spot.
I don’t think Siegel’s being ironic here. If so he wouldn’t again indulge in condescension toward Paul in a concluding scene where the protagonist has further regressed into the juvenile escapism of his fandom, literally caged from the rest of the world in a jail cell. We can’t care about Paul if he doesn’t even have the option to outgrow his obsessions. Does this make Big Fan wholly untrue? No, but on the crazy sports-fan movie scale—ranging from irredeemable dreck like The Fan to sublime weirdness like Buffalo ’66 —Big Fan rates as dispiritingly mediocre, just one more misunderstanding of a rarely broached subject most filmmakers obviously believe only worthy of freakish sensationalism.