BIG FAN clinched its spot on my Favorite Movies Of 2009 list, instantaneously, the day I saw it. This is the movie written and directed by Robert Siegel, whose work was most recently seen in theaters as the writer of THE WRESTLER.
BIG FAN stars the brilliant stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt as Paul Aufiero, Staten Island’s biggest New York Giants fan. He lives with his mother and spends his days tailgating Giants games with his best and only friend (played by Kevin Corrigan of so many movies, from GOODFELLAS and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS), and his every night calling in to the Sports Dogg talk radio show. One of Paul’s favorite topics to rave about is Giants star Quantrell Bishop (played by Jon Hamm, but not the one you’re thinking about), and one night he actually runs into his hero. Things do not go well.
I’m sure that part of my love for this movie comes from my own history – I grew up in the tri-state area and this movie expertly captures sights, sounds, and people that are remarkably familiar – but I wouldn’t respond to it so strongly if it wasn’t so good at drawing those environments. Beyond the obsessed, belligerent sports fans without much else to distract them, there are the decent Italian mothers burdened with difficult adult sons, the hometown lawyers (like Paul’s older brother) who aren’t as smart as their degrees and nice suburban houses lead them to believe, the housewives (like Paul’s sister-in-law) whose cartoonish makeup and absurd cleavage don’t lend them an ounce of class, and the law officers who see patterns and are annoyed by them, but resigned to them.
I’m making a point of this stuff, but a strength of Siegel’s work as writer and director is that he doesn’t underline anything to make a point. BIG FAN is rich in finely-observed detail, but it is admirably subtle about its approach. When you hear that Patton Oswalt, one of the funniest people in the world at the moment, is playing in a movie that could easily be described (and frequently has been by critics) as a non-sexual version of TAXI DRIVER — Paul loves Quantrell a bit differently than Travis Bickle loves Betsy and Iris — you couldn’t be blamed for expecting a comedy. But that’s not what this is.
While the movie is consistently fascinating and absorbing, I didn’t find it funny for a moment. While Patton Oswalt is a hilarious comedian everywhere else he goes, here he completely disappears into his role, committing fully to a disturbingly sympathetic portrayal of a very sad yet strangely fulfilled life. It’s one of the best sustained feats of acting I’ve seen all year. Everyone in the movie, in fact, is ideally suited to the movie’s gray tapestry, whether they’re more unfamiliar, unpretty faces, or if they’re recognizable and reliable character actors, such as Kevin Corrigan, or the perfectly-cast cameo by the not-to-be-revealed-by-me actor who plays Paul’s on-air nemesis Philadelphia Phil.
BIG FAN is bound to be overlooked, because it’s probably not what you’d expect when you hear that Patton Oswalt has his first lead role, and if you don’t know who Patton Oswalt is, his performance might feel too real and then the movie will probably feel more depressing than its premise might lead you to believe. I write this piece with the express purpose of keeping this humble and unflashy but great feature from being overlooked. For me, it was one of the most eagerly awaited movies of the year, and it did not disappoint.
Between THE WRESTLER and BIG FAN, Robert Siegel has staked a very specific claim as a chronicler of untold sports stories that could just as easily have been comedies, about tragic, optimistic characters who are far from the mainstream and far more interesting than the typical subjects of sports movies because of it. THE WRESTLER was about a big man who feels small, and BIG FAN is about a small man who feels big. Neither character is entirely right about himself, but neither of them is entirely wrong either. The disconnect is where the truly interesting stuff happens.
See this movie the first chance you get.
From November 15th, 2009.