A psychological character study that's also a critique of American masculinity and celebrity culture, Robert Siegel's Big Fan is a movie whose ambitions hugely outstrip its ability to fulfill them. That very imbalance between reach and grasp gives the movie a weird nobility. With its unremittingly bleak humor and eagerness to plumb the depths of fanboy abjection, Big Fan seems destined for a future in the cult canon. Like many movies in that canon, it's ungainly, imperfect, a bit too self-serious—but so sincere you can't help rooting for it anyway.
Those same adjectives could also be used to describe Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), a 35-year-old parking-lot attendant who lives with his mother on Staten Island. Paul is defined in near-entirety by his devout loyalty to the New York Giants. His hobby—one might say, his creative pursuit—is calling into sports-radio talk shows to analyze Giants games, disparaging the team's rivals, such as calling the Philadelphia Eagles "cheesesteak-eating bozos" and "brotherly-love jabronies." On one particular call-in show, Sports Dog, Paul has become a nightly regular, delivering diatribes he scripts in advance in a spiral notebook. His best friend, Sal (Kevin Corrigan), listens to Sports Dog each night in rapt admiration: "Dude, you were on fire!"
One night at a Staten Island pizza parlor, Paul and Sal catch a glimpse of their hero, the Giants' star linebacker, Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), filling up at a gas station. On a lark, they jump in their car and follow him and his buddies to a Manhattan strip club, but they're too nervous to approach him. Finally, they buy Bishop a drink and go over to chat him up. But when Bishop discovers that Paul and Sal have been "stalking" him all evening, he flies into a rage and beats Paul so badly he puts him in the hospital.
Things get stranger when Paul, his hematoma barely healed and his black eye still in evidence, refuses to press charges against Bishop, telling the investigating detective (Matt Servitto) that he has amnesia and can't recall the specifics of the incident. The more his ambulance-chasing lawyer brother, Jeff (Gino Caffarelli), eggs him on to sue, the more recalcitrant Paul becomes. All the while, Paul continues to call in anonymously to Sports Dog, defending Bishop and decrying his suspension from the team. Paul's archenemy on Sports Dog is Philadelphia Phil (a note-perfect and terrifying Michael Rapaport), a testosterone-crazed Eagles fan who calls the New York station to gloat insufferably over his team's every victory. Paul's rage—at Phil, at his litigious brother, at the nosy detective—grows in direct proportion to his self-abnegating adoration of the football player who pounded him to a jelly. When he does snap, Paul does so in grand (some might say Grand Guignol) style, culminating in an explosive, yet curiously inconclusive, act of violence.
Siegel, a former editor at the Onion who wrote the terrific script for last year's The Wrestler, directs for the first time here, using digital video that looks appropriately dingy and cheap. Siegel's smartest move was casting Patton Oswalt, a stand-up comic who voiced the lead character in Pixar's Ratatouille, in the lead. The character hovers on the edge of unlikability at all times, but Oswalt's inherent warmth keeps you in his corner. As Paul's loyal but witless best buddy, character actor Kevin Corrigan is also well-cast. (And his presence allows the movie a coattail ride on Corrigan's Law, which stipulates that no movie with Kevin Corrigan in it can be entirely bad. See also: Harry Dean Stanton Rule, Catherine Keener Correlative.)
At times, Siegel's commitment to abjection as a comic strategy strains the bounds of credibility, as when Paul bursts in on his brother in the bathroom and the two engage in a screaming match with the brother still on the toilet. Paul's family in general comes off as overdrawn, a gallery of working-class grotesques with spray tans and boob jobs. But the film's central relationship—the unrequited passion between Paul and his beloved New York Giants—is the kind of love story you don't often see in movies, and Siegel handles it with a delicacy that left me curious to see what he'll do next.
Slate V: The critics on Big Fan and other new releases