If his first few film projects are any indication, Robert Siegel has a fascination with losers. First, there was Randy "The Ram" Robinson from Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which Siegel penned. Now, in Siegel's directorial debut Big Fan, we have sad little Paul Aufiero. Randy the Ram was a tough case, but at least he had a glorious past. Paul -- well-cast and well-played by comedian Patton Oswalt -- has nothing.
Actually, he does have one thing: New York Giants football. If you've ever pictured the stereotypical sports radio phone-in regular, you'll see it come to life in Paul. He has an undying devotion to his favorite team, works a crappy job (parking garage attendant), and regularly calls into sports talk radio with his scripted, sadly anonymous trash talk. He has one pal, and he lives with his mother, constantly bothering her with his late-night phone chatter. Article continues below
Big Fan could've been a somber, voyeuristic peek inside Paul's life and a witty look at American obsessions, perhaps similar in story structure to The Wrestler. But Siegel (former editor of The Onion) opts for a bit more traditional approach, even within the film's weird little world -- one that falls apart dreadfully in the film's final act.
Here's how it starts: While hanging out one night, Paul and his equally obsessed buddy Sal (an appropriately unkempt Kevin Corrigan) spy Giants superstar Quantrell Bishop (pro indoor football linebacker Jonathan Hamm) and decide to follow him. When Paul stupidly stages his own version of meet-and-greet at a local strip joint, things get messy fast. Paul winds up in the hospital and Bishop gets suspended from playing.
This sets up a bizarre conundrum for the socially inept Paul. He can either show some personal pride and tell the public hard truths about his favorite player, or protect Bishop and the team by keeping his mouth shut. This is a wacky line of thinking far beyond the team idolatry seen in, say, Fever Pitch, making Paul even more hopeless and keeping us at arm's length. Oswalt serves up a deceptively strong performance, lending a level of strange realism that keeps us hanging on with the slightest dose of sympathy. And his monologues of radio ranting are little gems, as Paul fakes his faceless on-air bravado, stumbling over his own hand-scribbled scripts.
But when Paul finally grabs his own destiny by the horns, Siegel cheats both his lead character and his audience. We get a well-paced step-by-step sequence of Paul heading toward his life's most courageous, decisive moment... and when it's finally revealed, it's a head-scratcher. Oswalt does his best to make the unconventional step work, but it's simply too childish for everything the filmmakers have already established.
Luckily, Big Fan delivers a quick postscript that's truer to the rest of the film, and to Paul’s character. It's a fair and necessary save. Character development is certainly one of Robert Siegel's strong suits; when he focuses his efforts there, his work has more melancholy and sincerity, even when flying away from reality. When Big Fan flies too far afield, it loses fans along the way.