Big Fan (2009; dir. Robert Siegel)
—If you don’t give a damn about professional football, then pat yourself on the back. But also take a moment to pity the millions of passionate NFL fans out there whose Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays just got a whole lot more exciting. You know, fans like me, who are—or should be—finally starting to question our devotion to a sport that rivals bullfighting and Roman gladiatorial combat for the ways its savagery and ethical gray areas compromise its entertainment value. If you’d like to understand how we football fans can not only live with but altogether ignore the latest horrifying information about former players suffering from brain damage, set aside some time for writer-director Robert Siegel’s debut, one of the most perceptive films about American sports fandom ever made.
Comedian and noted sports agnostic Patton Oswalt plays Paul Aufiero, a working stiff from New Jersey who loves the New York Giants as much as he hates his mom, whose basement he lives in. Big Fan
is the story of Paul’s obsession, and it works even when it’s trying too hard to mean something more; you don’t have to be a Dostoevsky scholar to connect the dots when Oswalt intones “I am so sick…” while scribbling his talk-radio call-in show notes from the underground parking garage where he works. You also don’t have to be a sports-movie fan to sympathize with Paul and his pal Sal (Kevin Corrigan) as they sit outside Giants Stadium on game day and run through the full range of anger, disbelief, black humor, exaltation and exhaustion that every NFL fan will recognize from countless Sunday afternoons on the couch.
But Oswalt’s a tick too smart to transform completely into a lonesome, starry-eyed prole whose every interaction with the world goes about as well as a medieval de-nailing. Michael Rappaport, who plays the trash-talking Eagles fan Philadelphia Phil, offers a truer, ruder portrait. A master builder of pitiable and self-hating goons, Rappaport salts his exuberance with profanity and meanness—his casual obscenities sound even dirtier when contrasted with Paul’s labored hot takes. There’s no real exit from this sad character study, and like Frederick Exley noted long ago in A Fan’s Notes
, there are few if any indications that being a fan is anything other than a dead end. Against such impossible odds, Big Fan
still believes that hope springs eternal; its final scene catches Paul dreamily muttering “It’s gonna be a great year” from behind prison glass.