The unavoidable comparison between Paul and real life would be to, well, myself. I've worked my share of retail, go-nowhere jobs, I've been hounded by parents to look at the bigger picture, and yet here I am, writing a movie review, because watching movies is what I love to do. I watched the film unfold and wondered, "am I that guy?" I can't tell, I don't have an objective opinion, but I'd hope not. Then again, while Paul's life is undoubtedly sad, the movie is never entirely conclusive, standing back and examining both the reasonable and unreasonable sides of his hobby. Stand-up comedian Oswalt assists the movie in its picture of logical psychosis, making sure to gracefully walk the line between enthusiasm and insanity. In one life, Paul might have been a highly-paid sports columnist, but in Big Fan he's a nobody.
Paul and Sal are getting pizza when they spot their favorite Giants player, Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) filling up at a gas station and follow him into the city. Bishop and his crew hole up in a strip club, where Paul and Sal devise several scenarios to go up and talk to him. When they do, Paul reveals they followed him from the suburbs to the city, and Bishop, possibly drugged up and paranoid, beats Paul into a coma. When Paul awakes, he finds his team on a slide without their star quarterback, and is forced to decide what matters more: his loyalty to the Giants, or the legal ramifications of being assaulted.
Once again, writer/director Robert Siegel doesn't allow the audience to have the easy answer. The reasonable sympathy would lie on Paul's side; he didn't do anything to deserve being attacked and the beating nearly kills him. Whether or not Paul's light stalking would therefore be deemed acceptable is another question. Certainly, a celebrity has a right to privacy, and Paul's actions could be perceived as threatening. Oswalt internalizes Paul's struggle to accept what one of his heroes has done to him, breaking out into nervous smiles and looking like he's on the verge of tears when his brother or Detective Velarde (Matt Servitto) question him about what happened. He still sleeps under a poster of Bishop back at his mother's house, and seems like he's in a state of mild shock even weeks after the incident. When Philadelphia Phil won't lay off of him on the radio, Paul's bottled-up anger comes to a head, and you can practically see the internal Paul punching walls inside his mind.
Siegel, who also scripted The Wrestler, has now created two films that examine sports life inside and out. Comparatively, the problems of The Wrestler seemed black and white, and it's the gray area that makes Big Fan truly great. It's sobering to wonder about the social health ramifications of loving something with a passion, even when it seems almost reflexive or unstoppable, and Siegel's direction creates a world as believable as Aronofsky's, with gray skies and wet concrete surrounding unkempt lawns and dirty homes in and around New York. The gentle push of the characters surrounding Paul, including Sal's "why not" attitude (played with genial, indecisive perfection by Corrigan, whose mental gears turn slowly at Paul's every word), his mother's cold bitterness and his brother's passive-aggressive anger towards Paul's slow recession into his shell is also tense and realistic.
At the center of it all, though, is Oswalt. Patton's performance turns Big Fan from bleak drama into dark comedy, imbuing the character with life and allowing the audience to laugh when they might've been wincing. If Paul was just an anti-social weed pushed to the brink of insanity and on the verge of exploding, then there'd be no way to relate with him. Paul would just be that quiet guy at the office or in school that nobody talked to; a weird, impersonal mystery. The film's poster depicts Paul, face painted in Giants' colors, and once you've seen the movie, it makes perfect sense. Paul is unmemorable, but his love for his team defines him to himself, and the threat of losing that is the threat of Paul's individuality slipping away. He's dedicated in order to stand out in a crowd, to be somebody. I may be impartial, but I don't think I'm that guy; either way, Big Fan will make you second-guess the overly-devoted, without deciding for you whether Paul's love is tragic or bittersweet.
Click here to read my interview with Patton Oswalt about Big Fan.