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MOVIE REVIEW

'Big Fan'

Patton Oswalt is ideally cast in the character study about a die-hard football fan.

September 11, 2009|KENNETH TURAN | FILM CRITIC

Films without end have been made about the heroes of sport, but who speaks for the fans, the fervent admirers and supporters no team can exist without? Who especially speaks not for the weekend dabbler but for the hard-core fanatic, the zealot who devotes an entire life to a team with the single-minded intensity of a monk meditating in a cave? "Big Fan" does, and it does it exceptionally well.

Written and directed by Robert Siegel and starring an ideally cast Patton Oswalt in the title role, "Big Fan" is a poignant, dead-on character study, an examination of a crisis in the life of the most die-hard of die-hard New York Giants football fans. Its situations can be outrageous, its dialogue is often scabrous, but its sense of the core reality it describes is impeccable.

This is not easily done, because the almost pathological dimensions of the outsized passions of fans like the film's Paul Aufiero can make others uncomfortable. "Big Fan" neither denigrates nor idealizes Paul, it may not even particularly like him, but it does respect the ferocity of those convictions, respects the courage of his obsessions no matter where they lead him.

It's not surprising that Siegel, who gives himself a brief cameo as an obnoxious journalist, is the filmmaker behind "Big Fan." He's the writer of "The Wrestler," and both films share a feeling for society's underside, for the people who live on the fringes of professional sports. With this film, fortunately, Siegel does the directing himself, and his understanding of the value of subtlety and the power of understatement pays considerable dividends.

Speaking at the film's Sundance premiere, Siegel referenced "gritty indie movies from '70s auteurs like Marty Scorsese" when he talked about his film's ethos. "Beautiful loser outsider guys, guys walking down the street with their hands tucked into their pockets. I'm a sucker for them when I watch movies and when I write them."

As he did for Mickey Rourke with Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Siegel has written just such a killer role for his leading man. Oswalt, best known for stand-up comedy, TV's "The King of Queens" and his turn as the voice of Remy the Rat in Pixar's animated "Ratatouille," may be unlikely to get an Oscar nomination, but he deserves one.

Oswalt has the ability to go deeply into his character, capturing Paul's marginal status as well as his unconquerable bravado, in the process creating someone who is as engaging as he is off-putting.

Though it doesn't show us a second of on-field footage, "Big Fan" says a lot about the games we play as a culture and as individuals.

A 36-year-old resident of Staten Island who watches his team on a TV in the stadium parking lot, Paul is introduced at his day job, manning the booth at a parking garage. What he really lives for, however, are his New York Giants in general and being a call-in voice on "The Zone," a late-night sports talk radio program in particular.

Though he pretends to his best friend and fellow Giants enthusiast Sal (a dead-on Kevin Corrigan) that his radio tirades are improvised, Paul in fact writes them out in advance and practices them like any actor. His bete noire, his particular nemesis, is Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport), a caustic Eagles fan and one of the legion of "cheese steak bozos" that Paul cannot abide.

Because "The Zone" is a late-night show, Paul also has to contend with a difficulty closer to home, and that is the woman he lives with, his light-sleeping mother Theresa (beautifully played by the veteran Marcia Jean Kurtz). Theresa's a difficult person with a penchant for saving the condiment packages that come with Chinese takeout, and she and Paul regularly tear into each other like a mother-son version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?."

Though he loves all the Giants, Paul's particular hero is marauding linebacker and five-time all-pro Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm). So imagine his state of mind when he and Sal catch a glimpse of Bishop at a Staten Island gas station and decide on impulse to follow him no matter where it leads.

The ultimate destination turns out to be a Manhattan strip club where, in an incident eerily reminiscent of what recently happened to real-life Giants star Plaxico Burress, things end badly for all concerned. It's at this point that "Big Fan" takes hold, as Paul, pressured by everyone, including his ambulance-chasing attorney brother Jeff ("The Sopranos' " Gino Cafarelli), has to decide whom to keep the faith with, has to figure out if he is willing to pay the price for what he believes.

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