Paul Aufiero is a sports nut. Or to be more accurate, a New York Giants nut.
He eats, sleeps and breathes the Giants. The rest of his life may be depressingly mundane, but as long as the Giants are playing – and winning – all is right with the world. Everything else is just time spent waiting for the next game.
It would be easy to pigeonhole Paul (Patton Oswalt), the central character In Robert Siegel’s new film, “Big Fan,” as a loser. He lives with his mother on Staten Island, works a crappy job as a parking-garage attendant and takes grief from his siblings about his lack of ambition in life.
But Siegel’s acid dramatic comedy resists judging Paul. Instead, it offers us Paul’s worst nightmare, which upends his life (as well as the Giants’ season).
Thanks to Oswalt’s soulful, sometimes dim, sometimes scabrous Paul, “Big Fan” plunges us into the world of the superfan in a unique way. It has a story to tell – but its real purpose is a character study of someone who would be easy to underestimate.
Paul lives for the minutes or so each night when he gets a chance to rant on sports-talk radio about how great his Giants are and what idiots the fans of the (Eagles/Patriots/Cowboys – fill in the blank) are for even thinking their team has a chance against New York’s boys in blue. He writes and rewrites the scripts for these rants, like a performer waiting for his daily post-midnight moment on the stage.
On home-game days, he and his best friend Sal (the incomparable Kevin Corrigan) park their car at Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands. Clad in Giants’ jerseys, they run around the parking lot, leading cheers (“LET’S go, GI-ants!”) and otherwise fomenting team spirit amidst a crowd that needs little encouragement. When the game starts, they park themselves on lawn chairs and watch it on a tiny TV in their car.
That’s Paul’s life – and he doesn’t seem to want or need anything more out of it. He doesn’t have to sweat a demanding job; he’s got a hard shell against the jibes about living with his mom or not having a girlfriend. He correctly assumes he’ll never find a woman who is attracted to him as is (a long shot) and who has a comparable obsession with the Giants (a long shot with more dire odds than winning Lotto).
Paul’s life is lived through the Giants and his only disappointment in life is that he’ll never get the chance to meet and pal around with his idols. Then, one night, he spots his favorite player, a defensive mauler named Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm, not to be confused with Jon Hamm of “Mad Men”), filling his SUV at a Staten Island gas station. He follows Bishop to a Manhattan strip bar and watches him from afar – but when he approaches him, he says something that causes Bishop to beat the living shit out of him.
Paul awakens from a coma in a hospital a few days later – and finds that Bishop has been suspended and the incident is front-page news. The cops want Paul to testify against Bishop, while Paul’s fellow fans are dumping on him for spoiling the Giants’ season, as their playoff hopes tank with Bishop on the bench.
The resemblance to the Plaxico Burress case aside, “Big Fan” shifts gears into strange, exciting territory as Paul tries to redeem himself from the hell into which he seemingly has been cast. Siegel builds the film to a kind of “King of Comedy”-“Taxi Driver” finale that pits Paul against his primary antagonist, an Eagles-loving mook called Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rappaport).
The Travis Bickle reference is less apt than the one to Rupert Pupkin. Paul lives vicariously through his hero worship and suffers the fan’s delusion that the players need that adulation and praise to play their best – indeed, that his attention is a factor in their success. He invests so much energy in the Giants and Quantrell Bishop that he assumes it will be reciprocated, if only they are made aware of his existence. Indeed, he seems to think they are aware of his existence because the vibes he gives off are so strong.
This film tackles complex notions about hero worship and the way it shapes the worshipper’s life. Oswalt plays Paul as a guy who knows who he is – but who he is depends on how well the Giants are doing. He basks in weirdly reflected glory, taking on the fan’s oddball sense of self-esteem when they win – as though his cheering was a component of that victory. Similarly, when they lose, he believes it reflects on him (instead of, say, the team’s inability to get a ground game going or to defend against the pass). It’s a performance at once hilarious and touching, shifting from sunny to cloudy to stormy with a smoothness that’s inspiring.
“Big Fan” is a late-summer find. Released in a season known as a dumping ground, it is a smart, polished gem and a film not to be missed.