Director/Screenwriter: Robert D. Siegel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Are diehard sports fans sick? This seems to be the central question around which The Wrestler screenwriter Robert Siegel has built the literate, intelligent script for his directorial debut, Big Fan. He shines his interrogatory light on Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), a 37-year-old parking lot attendant who lives—and almost dies—for his team, the New York Giants, presenting us with a character study with all the intensity of Taxi Driver (1976) and none of that film’s easy answers.
When we first meet Paul, he is caged in his tiny booth, listening to a Friday-evening sports radio show, writing in a spiral-bound notebook, and taking money from drivers on the other side of his window. He rings up one ticket, asking for $5. “I was only in here for, like, five minutes,” the driver complains. “Five dollars,” Paul says. Frustrated, the man pays and says as he drives off, “Have fun in your little box.” Paul half-registers the insult.
We see him take public transportation to his home on Staten Island. Once home, we hear the words he has been scribbling at work, his rebuttal to the callers he has been listening to all night—especially Philadelphia Eagles fan Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport)—spoken with the passion of a true-blue Giants fan and worshipper of powerful defensive linebacker Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm). It is only when his voice reaches a shout that we hear a yell from behind his wall—his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz) telling him she’s trying to sleep. After the show, his best friend Sal (Jeff Corrigan) calls to debrief about the show, with Sal calling Paul some kind of genius for the poetry of his off-the-cuff words, knowing nothing of the time Paul puts in to composing his thoughts. They make plans for game day and sign off. Paul takes a tube of lubricant out of his nightstand in preparation for the evening jackoff.
Paul spends Saturday trapped at his nephew’s 7th birthday party. His mother lavishes praise on her son Jeff’s (Gino Caffarelli) do-it-yourself commercial for his law practice and scolds Paul for not accepting a job offer from his brother-in-law (Joe Garden) to work at Price Town, a membership warehouse store. On their drive home, he angers her for using the word “fuck” to describe his brother’s adulterous affair with his current, second wife (Serafina Fiore). “It’s ok for him to do it, but it’s not ok for me to say it,” he says contemptuously. Naturally, the conversation degenerates into an argument about his dead-end life.
Game day is what Paul lives for. He and Sal walk confidently among their people, the other diehard Giants fans who are tailgating outside the stadium. Cut to a close-up of a car battery hooked up to some cables. Paul and Sal, unable to afford tickets inside the stadium, sit in the now-abandoned parking lot watching the game on a portable TV, cheering, fist pumping, and dancing for joy when their team wins. Then back to their confining real lives.
That is, until the day they spot Quantrell at a gas station on Staten Island. They follow his car to what appears to be a drug buy and then into Manhattan, where he enters a strip joint. Paul and Sal follow him into the club and scrape together their last few dollars to buy him a drink. When he doesn’t wave them over, they approach him. Nervously declaring their admiration, Paul lets slip that they followed him from Staten Island. Drunk, stoned, and enraged, the linebacker beats Paul, putting him in a three-day coma and ending up on suspension until the police and the league can investigate the incident.
What Paul does from here on out provides the viewer with a chance to assess the film’s central dilemma. As we watch Paul’s black eye and his physical pain recede slowly, we look for signs of change. Will Paul cooperate with a police investigation and let his lawyer brother sue the bastard? Convention would have us expect Paul to finally awaken from his hero worship and strive for a new meaning in his life apart from his total fixation on football. But Siegel isn’t interested in uplift or change, which makes this a character study of unusual depth. The key to Paul’s decisions lies in an argument he has with his mother. Exasperated by Paul’s attempt to stop Jeff from suing Quantrell on his behalf, Paul’s mother wonders when he is going to get a real job, get married, and raise a family. “Why? Because you and Jeff say so?” he sneers. “Everyone says so,” his mother responds, sounding the call of the majority about what a normal life looks like. “I don’t want that!” Paul yells, and slams out of the room.
Paul doesn’t want to be like everyone else. He sees hypocrisy, meanness, and greed all around him. His devotion to the Giants is pure, he’s above it all. But look at his face. He’s bored and sullen almost all the time. His greatest pride is that as a regular caller (Paul from Staten Island), he gets put on the air every week to spout his passion and tell off the opposition. He’s a winner by his own standards, and when the Giants start to lose without Quantrell in the line-up, it’s all his fault.
Siegel accurately conveys the superstitious bond fans have with their teams. They’ll win if I’m at the tailgate party, they’ll lose if I don’t watch the first five minutes, or whatever a fan decides is the talisman of good or bad luck. Paul controls his life entirely through his relationship with the Giants, and yet he’s as trapped as the people in the “straight life.” Siegel is careful to frame Paul in his booth, in his car, on the bus going home as a solitary creature of habit—not so different from the rat we see scurrying across the garage where Paul works, except that the rat has more freedom of movement. What made Paul stop? What rebellion started out healthy and ended in a blind and undeserved devotion to a sports team? Anger clearly fuels it—it’s not surprising that Paul worships a linebacker, a position meant to take down the ball carrier with punishing efficiency. Fear of failure is another, where all he has to spend is psychic energy in helping his team (himself) be a winner.
Patton Oswalt gives a terrific performance as Paul, a man with complex emotions boiling under the skin but rarely surfacing. He shows the kind of restraint that many actors might not be able to achieve, yet still manages to glow with anger; if you want to see what makes the prototypical angry white man tick, Oswalt’s got it nailed. Corrigan as his best friend makes up the perfect passive side of this two-headed coin—you rarely see angry, ineffectual people like Paul without a lackey. Corrigan is wonderfully engaging, a shot of humanity in an uncomfortable film while still being an enabler of Paul’s monomania.
Paul’s mother doesn’t even get the dignity of a first name, but Kurtz plays her way beyond her type. In a hilarious, recognizable scene from life, she separates all the condiments from the takeout Chinese food they frequently order into sandwich bags, as Paul mocks that all she needs now is 6,000 egg rolls. “It’s a sin to waste food,” she replies, even though that’s really all her bagging efforts are—a waste. Jonathan Hamm, in his acting debut, does little but play a version of his real life as a former All Conference defensive linebacker for the Clark Atlanta University Panthers. Nonetheless, his massive physical presence and his switch from jovial star to savage attacker are extremely effective. Siegel gives him some horn-dog dialogue Paul overhears in the men’s room that highlights what a “real man” he is to contrast Paul’s impotence.
Most of all, Siegel’s script is easily the most literate, well observed, and fully fleshed I’ve had the pleasure of seeing realized on a movie screen. While I thought his direction was fine for a first effort, I believe his script had as much or more to do with the fine performances his cast delivers. I’m now a big fan of Big Fan and Robert Siegel.