Sports are definitely something that I have very slowly become a fan of over the years. For a very long time the only game I was ever a fan of was baseball, with my favorite team being the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. I’m not sure exactly why they’re my team of choice but it could be that they’re the parent team to my local Triple A affiliate, the Salt Lake Bees. I am far from what one would call a big fan and some who know me are usually very surprised that I even have a slight interest in any sports team. I even have a super-secret superhero character I made up back in the day that goes by the name Anti-Sports Guy, so obviously I’m the last person who should like sports films.
From Blue Chips to Celtic Pride, Any Given Sunday to Necessary Roughness, The Mighty Ducks to Miracle, The Rookie to Major League, sports films are a dime a dozen. I have definitely seen my fair share and for the most part I normally enjoy them. But it takes a great one to come along and really knock one out of the park in my book. Last winter a little movie called The Wrestler showed up and gave Mickey Rourke the comeback special he needed. I personally thought his comeback was due to his even better performance in Sin City but I guess The Wrestler managed to make a lot of people forget he was even in that film as the unstoppable hulking Marv.
The writer of The Wrestler, Robert D. Siegel, has now run two-for-two in the arena of sports films. The world of wrestling probably seemed like an easy enough target for garnering some empathy for its participants but when it comes to the world of football and its fans there’s usually more room for mockery than there is for character development. Luckily, Siegel has given us much more to chew on here than a bunch of people sitting in a parking lot eating hot dogs, drinking beer, and spewing profanity. There is sitting around in a parking lot, in more than one way, but The Fan is not about some lunkhead who likes to show off his ego with a painted face.
Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt, aka your favorite rat Remy from Pixar’s Ratatouille) lives life day to day, sitting in his booth as a parking garage attendant and listening to sports talk radio. He writes "talk back" speeches on scratch paper so he can call as “Paul from Staten Island” at 1 a.m. in spite of waking his mother, who needs her sleep, in the next room. He travels to Giants Stadium with his best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) in tow, not to be in the stadium for the game but sitting in lawn chairs in the parking lot watching on a TV powered off his mom’s car’s battery.
One night Paul and Sal are out getting some delicious looking New York pizza and spot their favorite player, Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) across the way. They moronically decide to jump in their car and begin following him and his entourage through the streets of New York. After a pit stop they continue into Manhattan where they manage to find a parking spot and follow Bishop into a strip club. This is where the more surprising elements of the film begin to play out.
Paul and Sal admit to following Bishop and make the dumb suggestion that they know they made the pit stop, which was obviously to buy drugs. This infuriates the drunken and drugged up Bishop who proceeds to beat the crap out of Paul, sending him to the hospital with some serious damage. He lies unconscious for three days. Everyone wants Paul to either sue Bishop, quit defending his favorite team after being beaten by his own idol, or maybe just simply grow up and move on with life. It’s when writer/director Siegel’s thriller elements come into play in a bar involving a rival sports talk caller called "Philadelphia Phil" (Michael Rapaport) that the movie comes together and throws you a curveball, resulting in one of the greatest sports film endings of all time.
Who would’ve thought that you could combine sports, drama, comedy, intrigue, and a surprise ending to create such a spectacular triumph of independent cinema? I was surprised to learn, after watching the film, that Siegel is former editor-in-chief of The Onion. But when thinking back to his penchant for sports and strippers it kind of makes sense. Films like this show that there’s still lots of life left not just in the sports genre but in films that come out of the Sundance Film Festival. Everyone complains more every year that it’s all too Hollywood now, but when something this great, made on such a small scale and budget, can work its magic so well, there has to be something still working up there after all.