As Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and others have so graciously continued to help prove, AM talk radio provides a valuable service — distracting the nutty, impressionable and obsessed enough to (mostly) keep them from violently acting out. Big Fan tests that hypothesis, though.
A sort of indie throwback to low-fidelity 1970s cinema, as well as a companion piece to the obsessive thriller One Hour Photo, debut director Robert Siegel’s exactingly sketched character study also shares much in common with his breakthrough screenwriting effort of last year, The Wrestler. One lead character is more proactive and engaged, the other a hermetic loafer who lives vicariously through a religious devotion to his beloved New York Giants, but both films center on broken-down, scruffy guys searching for human connection.
Thirty-five-year-old football fanatic Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) still lives at home in Staten Island with his mother, and spends his working hours as a parking garage attendant sketching out scripts for his sports talk radio calls, where he engages in long-distance wars of words with a Philadelphia Eagles fan (Michael Rapaport) he’s never met. Though he can’t afford season tickets, Paul nonetheless devotedly treks down to the stadium parking lot each weekend there’s a home game, tailgating and hanging around to watch the game on a TV hooked up to his car battery, as if somehow his mere proximity to the actual event will tip the scales in favor of his team. When Paul and his pal Sal (Kevin Corrigan, above center) get a glimpse of their favorite player (Jonathan Hamm) one night, they impulsively follow him back to Manhattan, then lurk nervously in the background for hours at a fancy strip club, trying to figure out a way to approach him. When they finally do — and let slip how long they’ve been following him — the situation becomes violent, and Paul is injured. Humiliated and, more pressingly, worried about the incident’s effect on his team, Paul becomes more and more irritable and isolated.
Comedian Oswalt gives a great, perhaps even career-altering performance, shading Paul’s embittered investment in only the things in life over which he has no control, and making him a sad-sack figure that’s not just some two-dimensional loser. It certainly helps that Siegel gets all the accompanying details right, from the assortment of plastic hangers in Paul’s closet and the fantasy magazines scattered across his nightstand to his hectoring mother and garish, surgically-enhanced, tan-in-a-can-sporting sister-in-law, who looks like a prime candidate for a spot on the next installment of VH-1’s Rock of Love. So when Paul puts on his football jersey and curls up on his bed, crying, you know his pain in a way that’s rooted in reality. You’ve laughed at him, and now you feel an awkward identification at the choking, claustrophobic introversion on display.
The quiet savvy of Big Fan‘s finale, and how it makes a stinging and yet insightful comment on the culture of obsessive fandom, lies in the manner in which Siegel deftly toys with thriller conventions. He’s enough of a movie fan to play off of audience expectation with the precision of a jujitsu master, and Big Fan benefits accordingly. (First Independent, 85 minutes, R)