Patton Oswalt isn't the only one taking a big risk with Big Fan. While the comedian's stark, largely humorless performance is a big reason to catch the film, it's writer-director Robert Siegel behind the scenes taking the chances that make the film pay off so well. Though on the surface it resembles Siegel's other produced screenplay The Wrestler-- working-class guy in the New York City suburbs is obsessed with a sport that dominates his life-- Big Fan is The Wrestler absent the flashy cinematography, the emotional catharsis, and the main character willing to change. It's far more minimalist than even that stripped-down film-- and it's fascinating.
Of course, even though it's set in a bleak Staten Island neighborhood and takes place mostly in claustrophobic indoor shots, Big Fan is enlivened by a rich sense of place, full of brash New York accents and thoroughly engaged in the fierce rivalry between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles. That rivalry, and every other statistic and factoid related to the Giants, is the primary obsession in Paul Aufiero's (Oswalt) life, a middle-aged guy still living with his mom, working a nothing job as a parking garage attendant and obsessively listening to sports radio. He spends his work shift carefully writing the tirade that he'll recite on the show later that night, keeping his voice down so his mom can't hear him, then joylessly masturbating before he goes to sleep.
During home games on Sundays, Paul and his only friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) don their jerseys, head to the parking lot at the Meadowlands-- and watch the game from the rigged-up TV in their car. These guys are such losers they can't even afford tickets to the game. One night Sal and Paul are eating pizza and are thrilled to see the star quarterback Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) at the gas station across the street. They follow Bishop and his posse all the way to a Manhattan strip club, where Paul finally works up the guts to speak to Bishop, but after a few awkwardly worded compliments, has the shit beaten out of him instead.
Paul lands in the ICU, with family members converging around him begging him to sue the hoodlum, and Bishop suspended from the Giants on a game-by-game basis. The team suffers in the meantime, and Paul's archrival on the call-in show, a guy going by "Phil in Philadelphia," continually rubs it in his face. Paul wants nothing more than for Bishop to be reinstated and for everything to go back the way it was, but the pressure of his family, his injuries and Phil's taunts eventually lead him, for the first time in his life, to do something dramatic.
There's a significant chunk of the film in which Paul does nothing, trapped in a hospital bed, passively listening to radio or glumly suffering through family gatherings. It's an incredibly daring feat for a first-time filmmaker, and Siegel resists the urge to use fancy camerawork or even clever dialogue to make up the difference. He simply presents Paul as he is, giving us time to understand his quirks and flaws, and allowing the audience to follow along as a breakdown grows nearer and nearer. Oswalt, erasing comedic tics and vanity, is unafraid to show Paul's angrier side, but is just as effective in the still moments. It may just be because he looks the part, but Oswalt is utterly convincing as a man who got willingly left behind by the world.
Big Fan is a small movie by design, and lacks the big character moments and pathos that made The Wrestler feel so grand. For all his skills as a screenwriter-- this is a nearly perfect screenplay-- Siegel is merely an OK director, creating a good sense of place within the suburbs but never giving it any real visual charge. Still, he and Oswalt clearly connected with the camera between them, and Siegel's ability to wring such a performance from an actor inexperienced with drama speaks well for his future as a director.
And in its lack of big moments, of soliloquies explaining deep hurts and connections between characters who never understood each other before, Big Fan feels refreshingly real. It ends with a wry, dark joke that's probably beyond most of the real life big fans, but everything else feels spot on, a glimpse into a weird world a little safer and more ordinary than the one in The Wrestler. Siegel's fine work on that film was overlooked in the hype surrounding Aronofsky Rourke; hopefully this will be his chance to be recognized as the promising new talent that he is.