Director: Robert Siegel
Writer: Robert Siegel
Producers: Elan Bogarin, Jean Kouremetis
Stars: Patton Oswalt, Kevin Corrigan, Michael Rapaport, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Gino Cafarelli, Matt Servitto, Jonathan Hamm
“After each solemn boom of the bell in the tower he shakes a little toy noisemaker or rattle as if to express the tiny spasm of man in contrast to the sustained power and dignity of the Almighty.” – The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams
Every man is the hero of his own story. He has a cause, a worthy prize to seek, and a nemesis. Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) is a devoted fan of the New York Giants of the National Football League. If the fan’s mission is to provide, through devotion and exclamation, a launching pad of positive karma for the home team, he would blast his all the way to the championship himself if he could. And his personal role in the great tapestry of fandom is to defend his beloved G-Men against the taunts of “Philadelphia Phil” (Michael Rapaport), a fan of division rival Philadelphia Eagles. They spar nightly on the radio during a late call-in sports show, and “Paul from Staten Island” spends most of his shifts as a parking lot attendant carefully scripting his rants in preparation.
Paul’s family despairs for his life. He is in his late 30’s, lives in a small room in his mother’s house, and makes no apparent effort to court success, independence, or a mate. His day begins when he catches the bus for work, and it ends in his single bed with his nightly engagement in the practice euphemistically called “interfering with one’s self”. All this changes on Sundays in the fall, when he and his best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) are called to their sacred duty to worship the Giants, and scorn fate, their opponents, the surely-biased referees, and any other force denying them their rightful glory.
You will think I am silly to speak in such grandiose terms – but the point is that Paul is a man who is, seemingly, entirely fulfilled with his seemingly-sad existence, because he has constructed it in such a way that gives him a heroic and necessary role. He has a place in the world. It asks something of an audience not to judge the particular pillars on which a person has built their world, like Paul’s in Big Fan. But through this small but effective dramedy, the viewer understands that one of the greatest cruelties in life is to have one of the pillars, whatever they are, knocked out.
It’s the directing debut of Robert Siegel, who wrote the screenplay for last year’s The Wrestler. He usefully appropriates the unaffected aesthetic director Darren Aronofsky used in that film, including those famous handheld shots following behind the shoulder of the main character. Likewise, he is disciplined in his intent not to judge but simply to observe with an accuracy that shepherds an overlooked subculture into the spotlight. Just as the strange rituals and secret language of professional wrestlers found in him a respectful chronicler, he now captures the tribal chest-beating and sarcastic bravado of sports talk radio with wicked accuracy. If you have never listened to one of these shows before, know that this movie has no need to exaggerate.
What happens to Paul is that, one night at a gas station, he and Sal spot one of their Gods – Giants defensive superstar Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm). And Paul and Sal behave exactly according to their nature, following him that they might preserve the awe of the moment a little longer; might even, they hope, earn the humbling right to pay direct tribute. Greek mythology is full of stores about mortals who spy on Gods – and the violent misfortune that usually follows. What follows for Paul lands him in the hospital.
And here is where Paul’s delicate psychology is put under an excruciating strain. Justice for himself could well cost his team their shot at the playoffs. Police detectives are asking for details. His brother (Gino Cafarelli) proposes a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. His mother wishes he would stop yelling into the phone at such late hours – Marcia Jean Kurtz’s performance perfectly sells decades’ worth of frayed patience and disapproval between mother and son.
Paul stalls, hides, feigns amnesia, agonizing at his fate. But it is what he chooses to do about all this which is the most revealing and dramatically satisfying. His eventual actions ring perfectly true because they remember two things 1) that Paul had what he wanted out of life and needs to get it back, and 2) a man with a God as his nemesis can never claim victory. So either he must stop seeing the Giants as Gods, or direct his feelings at a different adversary.
Stand-up comic Oswalt was the star voice of Pixar’s Ratatouille and as Paul here he reveals a face like that of a sadder Nathan Lane. In the climax of the film he paints his face in team colors like many sports fans, and under the greasy white suddenly he is turned into the humiliated clown Pagliacci, seeking a privately-decided revenge.
His performance exceeds any previously-set expectations and shows him to be a worthy character actor. His work realizes Siegel’s intent in a way that makes the movie succeed. Corrigan also does a superb job effectively playing an appendage of Paul’s, a man who defines himself by aspiring to the example of fandom Paul sets. Their conversations have the intimacy of marriage.
As a rookie director Siegel is prone to rookie mistakes, and he most notably mishandles the climax, building it on a false expectation that undermines his own greatest strength: the integrity of his characters. We know who the Big Fan is – the way he rehearses the inflection in his voice for his role as “Paul from Staten Island”, the way his composure breaks when he cries to his mother that he doesn’t want the things his family has decided he is supposed to want. This is a story about a man who does not want to change – and when destiny and those closest to him are trying that hard to change him, it takes, ironically, heroic effort to thwart them.