Saturday, January 16, 2010

Big Fan

Paul Aufiero lives in a boxed-in world: he works in a parking garage booth taking tickets from customers who always maintain that they "were just in there for a minute," and he lives in his cramped childhood bedroom with his mother, who harps on her son to get a real job and find a woman. Even the frame seems confined, always bearing down on Paul and squashing his pudgy frame into a bent-over mound of flesh and stubble.

At some stage in life, Paul gave up on career and romantic aspirations and fixated on the one constant: football. He decorates his room with posters of star quarterback Quantrell Bishop (spot the initials) and sleeps under NY Giants bedsheets. At 1 am, he calls into local sports talk show to rant and rave with rehearsed tirades with "the Sports Dogg" about the Giants and spars with the mysterious "Philadelphia Phil" (Michael Rapaport), a cantankerous Eagles fan who calls in just to annoy New Yorkers.

One night, Paul and his equally stunted buddy Sal (Kevin Corrigan) are out on the town when they spot -- no, can it be? -- Quantrell Bishop himself. Overwhelmed, the boys trail the player from Staten Island to Manhattan and follow him into a strip club. There, these two virginal, pathetic men don't cast a sideways glance to any of the dancers, fixating entirely on Bishop until working up the courage to approach him, like shy, dateless boys at prom asking for a dance. Surprisingly, Bishop welcomes the two losers, until Paul and Sal reveal that they followed Bishop from Staten Island -- and even saw him stop to pick up some drugs -- leading to an altercation that leaves Paul bruised and bloodied.

Days later, Paul awakes in a hospital bed and, after establishing that he was out for the entire weekend thinks only of asking how the Giants did on Sunday. The police ask him for his statement, and his lawyer brother prepares a lawsuit, but Paul knows that his testimony would continue Quantrell's suspension, possibly even lead to jail time, so he attempts to bury the story for the sake of the team he loves so dearly. Here the film takes a turn, from a story of a wretched sports nut à la writer-director Robert D. Siegel's previous screenplay The Wrestler to a discombobulated mess attempting to ape Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

The head trauma Paul suffered from his beating exacerbates his clear instability and, if at all possible, he retreats further into himself, shrinking away from his family's attempts to help him and gently reshapes his quiet isolation into a simmering rage. It's a bravura performance by Patton Oswalt, the fantastic comedian who seems to channel the merciless pathos of this manchild without feeling the need to pander and soften as some comics-cum-dramatists (especially Robin Williams, though his performance in World's Greatest Dad is a bit of a kindred spirit to Oswalt's Paul). The subtlety in his face, the way he saves all his passion for that call-in show and buries everything else behind a stone face that hints at the trouble that lies beneath through intensely cold and focused eyes, promises a rewarding second career should the comedian take on more roles.

It's a subtlety that, unfortunately, is almost entirely lacking in the rest of the picture. Siegel's Wrestler dealt in cliché -- the stripper with a heart of gold, the washed-up underdog looking for one last shot, and those are just characters -- it gave the story and characters dignity. Minor touches, such as The Ram clinging to an old NES wrestling game featuring him (a relic treasuring another relic), gave the story nuance even if we knew what was coming. While Oswalt doesn't reach the heights of Mickey Rourke -- who in the hell could? -- he's got the same sure grasp on his character, but Siegel's script lacks focus. At just under an hour and half, it feels too long, reaching the beating quickly and letting us know how Paul will respond immediately afterward, leading to a sizable gap between relative closure of that storyline and a darker development near the end.

This stretch of inactivity, among other aspects of the film, has led some to interpret Big Fan as a dark comedy; even Netflix refers to it only as such in its description of the film (even going so far as to mention Siegel's connection to satirical paper The Onion). Yet the story is clearly dramatic, a study of a man's descent into madness and isolation; it just so happens to be founded on a layer of condescension and mockery. The Ram was a mess, but a mess you cared about, that you pitied and even, against all logic, respected at times. Compare the depth of character revealed when Randy hands Pam an action figure of himself for her son -- the way the gift reflects both Randy's perpetual narcissism, his desire to get closer to Pam, the affection he has for kids who used to view him as a god and his eternal boyishness -- to Paul masturbating under Giants bedsheets under the shadow of his Quantrell Bishop poster, and how he later ignores women in the strip club to gawk at Bishop and send him drinks "compliments of the gentlemen over there."

Big Fan denies its protagonist the dignity that The Wrestler afforded to its doomed has-been. One could explain this as the difference between a man who had it all and lost it and a loser who never had anything, but even as someone who regards sports with boredom and willful ignorance, I can't help but feel bad for the caricature the film makes of dedicated sports fans. It's true that diehard fans -- be they sports nuts or cineastes -- can grow unhealthy obsessions with the hobbies they love, but Big Fan never offers a counterpoint to ridiculous superfans like Paul or Philadelphia Phil; hell, Sal is even worse, as he's such an idiot that he idolizes Paul for his ability to rant on a cheap sports radio show as much as he does the players on the Giants. Had the movie concerned a film buff who couldn't get laid, who obsessed over an actor and ruined his life just to watch more flicks, would it have received the same adulation from critics. Besides Oswalt's incredible performance, a few aspects of Big Fan won me over -- ironically, the funnier moments, such as Paul attempting to stop the lawsuit his brother submitted by going to Wikipedia in the hopes of telling him how to halt one; "Lawyers probably don't want people to know about," Sal offers -- but it never shifts out of first gear and yet again I find myself hopelessly disappointed with a Taxi Driver remake released in 2009.

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