Monday, January 11, 2010

"Big Fan": who said sports movies need sports?

Earlier this year, Face of the Alternative Comedy Movement, Patton Oswalt, was a guest on the superlative podcast "I Love Movies" with Doug Benson. The conversation took a brief detour from waxing philosophical about which episodes of MASH suck and whether Pacino has given himself brain damage with hair product to Patton's current projects, which included a highly-anticipated indie venture written and directed by "The Wrestler" scribe Robert Siegel.

The movie was "Big Fan". Reviews were favorable. It had recently been announced that the Academy was expanding the best picture category to ten nominees, in an effort to both call back to the glory days of Hollywood and make the awards ceremony last longer than the NBA playoffs. It was suggested, only half-jokingly, that "Big Fan" might be a dark horse contender for the Academy's biggest prize.

I checked out the trailer. As I mentioned in previous posts, I'm a huge Patton Oswalt fan. I'm a sucker for indie drama/black comedies. I could not wait for this movie to come out.

It was going to play for one night in Chicago, at the Music Box theater. Robert Siegel and Patton Oswalt were going to be there for the screening and a Q&A.

I was out of town.

If ever you want to make a film snob experience heartbreak, this is not a bad way to go.

It seemed as though I would have to wait for the DVD to come out, but as fortune would have it, I received an offer to get a screener thanks to a previous sports-related stomping ground of mine.

If ever you want to make a film snob experience elation, this too is not a bad way to go.

On the eve of the DVD release of "Big Fan", my ISF co-editor and I sat down with a screener. My anticipation for the movie had been building for months, not unlike waiting for the Super Bowl to learn what the Neon was. Unlike that disappointing revelation, however, "Big Fan" delivered the goods.

The movie follows Patton Oswalt as Paul Aufiero, a Staten Island loser with a dead-end job as a parking lot attendant. The only thing that interests him in life is the New York Football Giants, and their star linebacker, Quantrell Bishop. His mother, whom he still lives with, wishes he would take after his sister or lawyer brother instead of spending his evenings calling into the local sports talk radio show to sputter out scripted rants and raves intended to deflate the tauntings of caller Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport).

When Paul and his buddy Sal (Kevin Corrigan, the disgruntled house-party host in "Superbad") spot Bishop outside a local pizza joint, they follow him around New York in the hopes of meeting him and saying 'hi'. The meeting does not go quite as planned - Paul ends up in the hospital, and Bishop is suspended until a police investigation of their meeting is complete. Paul decides he can't remember what happened at the club in the hopes Bishop can retake the field and push the G-Men into the playoffs.

"Big Fan" is a focused character study that is simultaneously heartbreaking and bleakly hysterical. Paul is not only an outsider when it comes to his hero, he's an outcast in his own family, and he even struggles to fit in with his fellow Giants fans. He spends game days awkwardly trolling tailgates at the Meadowlands before watching the game in the parking lot with Sal. He's so ostracized from the only thing he loves, we don't even see a single snap of pigskin the duration of the taught 87-minute runtime; instead, we get to watch Oswalt's expressions as he feels the pain and joy of his team's up and downs.

As a character study, we're able to both sympathize and pity Oswalt's Paul. His single-minded fanaticism is oddly admirable, but also tragically pathetic as he really has nothing else in his life, and doesn't seem capable of much more even if he wanted it (perhaps best illustrated by his grimly amusing efforts to conduct legal research on Google). The lengths Paul goes to for his team, and the passion painted (literally and figuratively) on his face for the Giants' last game of the regular season, questions the dark places frenzied sports fans can sink to, whether it's booing Santa Claus or tearing off the testicles of a rival team's supporter.

Siegel's directorial debut is refreshingly focused and restrained, both a taught thriller and dark comedy, driven by Oswalt's bold performance. With the Oscar pool wide open for 10 nods, there's a definite chance it will sneak into the running, and if it does, a Best Actor nomination could be in the works for Patton Oswalt, "Big Fan"'s ironically short and fat star.*

"Big Fan" comes out on DVD this Tuesday.

TOO MUCH: the movie was 87 minutes - unless Andy Warhol is directing, that's not a lot of time for fluff

COULD HAVE USED MORE: one more scene like the one wherein Corrigan tries to wean Oswalt off of Mountain Dew

FILM SNOB NOTE: Jonathan Hamm, who plays Quantrell Bishop, is not to be confused with Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper on "Mad Men". Helen Reddy's "Delta Dawn" and John Prine's "Sweet Revenge" both serve as great black-comedy punchlines.

IHYFM RATING: FOUR AND A HALF out of FIVE MEHS. It's a small-scale story that doesn't try to be more than it is; effective filmmaking that is terrifically entertaining.

IF YOU SAID THIS WAS YOUR FAVORITE MOVIE, I'D THINK: Whatever your team is, that's my team too.

*I almost made it without making that pun. I am a total hack.

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