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For some, an allegiance to sports teams comprises a big part of their identity. I continually encounter individuals who know more about their beloved baseball or football franchises than they know about their spouses. Self-identifying members of the "Raiders Nation" or "Colts Nation" exude a quasi-patriotic fervor that can at times be alienating and downright frightening to those on the outside. First-time director Robert Siegel's Big Fan asks a lot of questions about the limits - or lack thereof - of one sports fan's loyalty to his team, casting a darkly satirical eye on this dominant feature of American culture.
Patton Oswalt plays Paul Aufiero, a Staten Island parking lot attendant and die-hard fan of the New York Giants. Paul's nightly routine is to compose long, enthusiastic calls into a late-night sports radio talk show, which he makes after his shift. These are usually barbed responses to a caller known as "Philadelphia Phil" (Michael Rapaport), a supporter of the Giants' rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles. Paul and his best - and only - friend, Sal (Kevin Corrigan), go to Giants games but stay in the parking lot watching them on TV. One night, the pair spot Giants quarterback Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan - not Jon - Hamm) in a Manhattan strip club and a misunderstanding leads a drunken Bishop to beat Paul within an inch of his life. Paul's devotion to the team, however, means that he refuses to the divulge details of the assault, which releases Bishop from league suspension. Paul's cowardice is later unveiled on-air by Philadelphia Phil, after which Paul disguises himself as an Eagles fan and locates his rival in a Philly sports bar, leading to a somewhat jokey climax.
As the consequences of Paul's choices pile up - the aftermath of his beating, his decision not to pursue litigation when the Giants' season is jeopardized by Bishop's suspension, the public airing of his dirty laundry by Philadelphia Phil - his mental health seems to hover on a precipice. His devotion to the Giants drives every decision he makes; there is literally nothing else in his life that he devotes any significant attention to. As viewers, we believe that he will either self-destruct or experience something revelatory. Neither happens. The movie's climax, although a bit too "funny" to mesh with the harsher, more desperate tone that builds up to it, condemns Paul to continue in the same obsessed, imbalanced state of mind. This choice is simultaneously realistic, depressing, and more thought-provoking than if Paul had acted in a more decisive or consequential way. Because Paul's obsession remains intact, we are left thinking about sports fanaticism as it may exist in the real world, with all of its attendant behaviors, trends, etc., and what these things mean.
Siegel's dark script keeps the satirical elements of the story embedded in Oswalt's character. It's a solid approach that makes for appropriately uncomfortable comedy. Oswalt's performance is very good, although the cadences of his stand-up persona occasionally sneak into an otherwise convincing portrayal. Corrigan is one of several actors who lend authentic, restrained support to Oswalt's lead. His Sal is another loser, but more of a hapless sidekick to the more aggressive, articulate Paul.
Oswalt's round, bestubbled face is harshly-lit and unflattering. Paul's surroundings are dingy and he doesn't take care of himself. The photographic style has a washed-out look favored by filmmakers looking for an unpleasantly-heightened reality. It's a common approach that nevertheless works well here. The film is short and punchily directed by Siegel, whose debut is auspicious, entertaining, and constructively subversive.
The enhanced 1.78:1 transfer is quite strong. The aforementioned look of the film is well-reproduced, with no significant digital artifacts or other defects. The lighting scheme is hospital-like, with grime and sweat highlighted by harsh fluorescent overheads. Blacks remain deep and steady.
Although not a terribly broadly-mixed soundtrack the 5.1 Dolby Surround track makes decent use of ambience. Dialogue remains out in front of the track. Music is usually in the background, although the use of a few select songs - particularly one by John Cale - is very effective.
The DVD is, unfortunately, a bit light on bonus content, although what is included is pretty fun. A Siegel-Oswalt commentary would have been extremely welcome here. Instead, we have Exclusive Outtakes (10:47), a selection of flubbed lines and such. Q&A with Robert Siegel and Patton Oswalt (29:48) was shot following a screening at Chicago's famed Music Box Theater. It has some hilarious moments, and Oswalt's many bon mots make up for the lack of a commentary track. Kevin Corrigan Recalls his Own Big Fan Experience (7:30) was shot after a screening at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, and has the actor describing an encounter he had at age 17 with Robert De Niro. It's a hilarious story, and well-told. There's also the Theatrical Trailer (2:24), a downloadable Quantrell Bishop Poster, and an mp3 of a Siegel-Oswalt Interview from NPR's Fresh Air.
Big Fan is a sad, funny, well-written satire anchored by an excellent performance by Patton Oswalt. The film's poses interesting queries about fan obsessions that can apply as easily to movies, comics, or wine as they apply to sports. Big Fan doesn't offer any easy or predictable answers - just keen and sometimes brutal observations - which will help maintain the film's power and interest over time. Recommended.