“I can’t tell you how I sick I am,” hardcore New York Giants fan Paul Aufiero says as the first frames of Big Fan roll. He repeats it. “I can’t tell you how sick I am.”
Aufiero, played against type by lumpy comic Patton Oswalt, is preparing a rant for the Sports Dog radio show that he faithfully calls in to every night. He’s had it with a guy known as Philadelphia Phil who is always ragging on his team and extolling the virtues of the rival Eagles. But Paul’s opening words are also a blaring signal to the audience — this is not a well-adjusted character.
Robert D. Siegel (former editor-in-chief of The Onion and screenwriter of The Wrestler) makes his directorial debut with Big Fan, a character study that finds a home within both dark comic and tragic genres, but ultimately fails to give any real insight into the sports-obsessed psyche of a man who’s never been good at much of anything other than rooting for the hometown team. As the opening lines suggest, this is a film that tells us Paul is sick more than it shows us anything interesting about said sickness.
For his part, Oswalt does a capable job in the dramatic role, although perhaps he lacks the kind of emotional gravitas necessary to really sell the part. Think Taxi Driver with a comedic actor trying to play it straight. Paul still lives with his henpecking mother (a hilarious Marcia Jean Kurtz) and is content with his low-level parking garage attendant job, even though his more successful siblings want to help him find something better.
What Paul really lives for is Giants football, and his favorite player is linebacker Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm). Together with buddy Sal (Kevin Corrigan), the two spend every home game sitting outside Giants Stadium watching the game on a jury-rigged TV, too poor to afford tickets.
One night, a chance encounter with Bishop sends the pair traveling all over New York following him, eventually to a high-priced strip club where Paul awkwardly tries to introduce himself to his hero. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding leads to Bishop attacking Paul, and Paul wakes up to find himself in the hospital, black-eyed and concussed. Family and the police urge him to press charges, but Paul just can’t bring himself to turn on his favorite player and team.
What is necessarily a contrivance for story purposes works rather well in sending the film down its trajectory from here, as Paul struggles with finding an identity outside of the team. Trouble is, it’s quite apparent that is something he’ll never be successful at. There’s an attempt to take the mood into ultra-dark territories in the final act, but most of that is undermined by a silly bait-and-switch. By the end of the film, it’s clear who Paul is — a sports-obsessed nut who’s never going to change. America is full of these guys, and the film accepts that dejectedly. But for the most part, this isn’t much of a revelation.
Siegel does a nice job with his directorial duties, and it’s pretty clear this guy’s got a bright future. Big Fan has got the necessary atmosphere and mood down pat, and in that regard, it’s a success. Oswalt too shows he could have a future in serious acting if he wants it. Big Fan isn’t a total letdown, but it’s a bit too breezy to sustain any kind of lasting impact.