Saturday, February 26, 2011

Big Fan (2009)

This is a startling, painful film. I watched it last night, and then immediately re-watched it. The funny thing is I hadn't even planned on watching it, or any movie for that matter, last night. But I was at my mom's to do laundry and she was watching some dumb indie romance film, and one of the trailers on the DVD was for Big Fan. I also didn't expect to find myself with so much to say about the film, but I've been thinking about it all day, and that is certainly a rarity for me.

Robert Siegel, who wrote The Wrestler, wrote (and also directed) this film. On the surface, it's a film about sports fanaticism, but really it's about brokenness, and loneliness, and what contributes to an irretrievably damaged person's self-worth. I can't really say much on the subject of sports mania, since I don't really understand it myself. I followed the Cubs very closely for a few years and enjoyed going to games, but I wouldn't even be able to tell you who their starting pitchers are now. However, there are untold millions of people in this country who are fanatical. It is a critical component of our society's cultural landscape, but like I said I don't quite understand it and we'll leave it at that (although I will say, I got a little warped satisfaction while watching this and thinking of all the people who spam my facebook news feed with hyperbolic sports updates).

Obsessiveness in general, however, I do know a little about, and I think the majority of people do as well. There are things in every person's life that become the object of too much preoccupation. It could be a lover, or a career, or a collection, or a combination of things. Big Fan looks at a case of extreme, crippling obsessiveness and asks the viewer to gauge their own level of perspective.

Paul Aufiero, played by comedian Patton Oswalt, is a New York Giants fan and nothing else. He is 36, lives in his mother's house in Staten Island, works a night job taking tickets in a parking garage. He spends every waking moment of his life listening to sports talk radio and following Giants football. He spends countless hours carefully writing down scripts that he later reads when calling into his favorite sports radio show. He passes them off as spontaneous. He practices his inflection to make it sound more natural. He and his best (only) buddy Sal go to every Giants home game, only to spend it watching the game on TV in the parking lot because they can't afford tickets.

Paul is the kind of guy who refers to the players on his team by their first names. He deludes himself into thinking that his and Sal's presence in the parking lot will have a positive impact on the Giants' play. He lives for his late-night tirades on the radio show, and is also on a first-name basis with the radio programmer who puts his calls through to the DJ. He loathes his faceless call-in nemesis, Eagles fan "Phil from Philadelphia" with pure vitriol. In Paul's mind, football fandom is a war of sorts and Phil is his bitterest enemy.

This may sound like the setup for a broad comedy, but this is a drama that is both intense and disturbing. There is little in the way of plot; almost all of the movie's running time is dedicated to a detailed character sketch of a man with a total lack of personal identity. Paul wants things that all men want: he wants his voice to be heard and accepted. He is persistent, dedicated, and single-minded; interestingly, these are things that are typically lionized in the movies. But I don't know if I've ever seen a character as straight up pathetic as Paul Aufiero.

Paul's character first and foremost represents cognitive dissonance. Paul has spent his entire life suppressing whatever assertive, self-improving instincts he may have had. He is absolutely dedicated to something that, ultimately, even diehard fans would admit is quite trivial in the grand scheme of things. Paul has forced the incredibly complex system of his own human emotions into one linear scale; he feels good about his life if the Giants are winning and he spirals into despair when they are losing. In the process he has lost the ability to feel anything about the life he himself is living.

He and Sal are out for pizza one night when by chance they see the star of the Giants team, Quantrelle Bishop, at a gas station across the street. They begin to follow him, with a notable absence of discussion beforehand. The star linebacker and his entourage stop first at a house in the hood, quite obviously to get some drugs, but the naive Paul and Sal are of course perplexed watching from a distance. They then continue on to a high-end strip club in Manhattan. In a drawn-out and (intentionally) awkward conversation, Paul and Sal debate on the best way to approach Bishop and his entourage. They cluelessly try to send a drink over, but when this fails, Paul musters up his courage and walks over. At first the guys do what some cool black guys do when presented with a goofy white guy: they talk about him as if he isn't there while sort of acknowledging his presence ("Check out this motherfucker!"). Bishop himself is dismissive but humors them for a little. Then Paul lets slip that they had followed them from Staten Island and the coked-up Bishop goes ballistic, attacking Paul and knocking him out.

Much of the rest of the film's plot, such as it is, concerns Paul's subsequent dilemma: does he press charges on Bishop, thereby probably sending him to prison and ruining the Giants' Super Bowl hopes? A cop comes to see Paul in the hospital and asks him to go through the details. Paul feigns amnesia. The cop can tell he's lying. "We don't know what happened at that club," Paul later says on the radio in defense of Quantrelle Bishop, and you can see that he has almost, but not quite, convinced even himself.

Paul's brother Jeff is an ambulance-chasing attorney with all the typical trappings of success (a giant suburban McMansion, a comically large-breasted wife, and one of those Peter Francis Geraci-style TV ads - "have you been injured in a car accident?"). In short he is the diametric opposite of Paul. Interestingly, the movie never tells us which brother is the elder. I suppose what's important is that no matter their ages, Paul is still the child of the two. When Paul wakes up in the hospital, Jeff immediately sees lucrative possibility and tries to pressure Paul into suing. Paul refuses flat-out.

At first I found it curious that Paul isn't completely spiritually broken by the attack. After all, the man he most admires, most needs, treated him with the utmost scorn and hostility. To make matters worse, he is put in a position where he could hurt his team, and by extension, his life. But then I realized that the predicament is in many ways probably the greatest thing that has ever happened to Paul: inasmuch as he can hurt the team by pressing charges against Bishop, he can also save it by keeping quiet. What Paul yearns for most is power, a voice that will affect things, and here he is given it. He needs it, he needs to feel important. But of course there is a high price. Under stress from the situation Paul has a seizure. We suspect it could be from the trauma of his injuries, but he later admits that a CAT scan revealed nothing. He is killing himself from the inside out.

A running thread throughout the film is of repressed sexuality, and the latent sexualization of sports figures. On the wall in his bedroom, Paul has a giant poster of Quantrelle Bishop emblazoned with the slogan "quarterbacks beware." In one sequence, the camera pans over the poster in close-up, and we can see the pornographic quality inherent to it. When Paul and Sal are in the strip club, they are surrounded by beautiful women, but when offered a lapdance, Paul brusquely brushes the stripper off and continues to stare intently at Bishop. Paul masturbates in bed (under his childish NFL bedsheets), but doesn't use pornography and we see him in wide-shot. We can't tell what he's thinking about, and we certainly don't want to know. The need to be the "#1 Fan" has completely eclipsed all the other needs in his life, including the physical.

It is impossible to watch Patton Oswalt in this film and not think of Robin Williams in One Hour Photo. Both are manic but pretty lighthearted stand-up comedians, known for verbosity and fun goofiness. Both also channel that manic intensity into scary roles as obsessive loners. I like Patton Oswalt's comedy, but was even more impressed by his ability to inhabit Paul Aufiero. He has the boyish face and mannerisms necessary to convey that Paul is an arrested child of sorts, but also the focus to suggest something more sinister.

There is a twist late in the film where Paul confronts somebody. To get ready, he puts on his football jersey and paints his face in the style of fanatical sports freaks everywhere. There's a shot where he's looking into a mirror and smears the first of the paint on his face. The look on Oswalt's face at that moment made my soul crumple. He stalks around like Pagliacci the tragic clown, a sinister mask of white paint. The sequence leading up to the confrontation is so tense and awkward I actually had to turn the movie off for a few minutes. Oswalt is absolutely brilliant in these final scenes. He has pathos, and power.

Kevin Corrigan has a supporting role as Paul's only friend, Sal. Every time I've seen Corrigan he's been completely miscast (in my opinion) as a laconic tough-guy type, which in my opinion always falls flat because I don't find him particularly menacing. Contrarily, he hits all the right notes in Big Fan as Paul's enabling accomplice. Sal provides a few laughs courtesy of his clueless nature (at one point he tries to persuade Paul that sodas that come in brown bottles are healthier for you than those that come in green, because they're "more natural"), but even as a support character I found him satisfyingly complex. On one hand, he could be viewed as even more pathetic than Paul, since he stays up to listen to Paul's scripted tirades on the radio and then call him to offer congratulations on a job well done. He's the easygoing lackey of the two, like the kid who happily goes along with whatever games his friends want to play. However, we get brief hints that Sal isn't as far gone as Paul. He has his own apartment, for one thing, even though it's dingy and small. He seems to enjoy following football, contrasted with Paul's pathological need. The sharpest contrast between the two, however, comes in a couple quick cuts so fast it'd be easy to miss: when Paul is following Quantrelle Bishop through Manhattan, the camera follows the car cruising slowly through the neon-walled canyon of Times Square. Cut to Sal, who is staring up at the lights in wonder. Cut to Paul, whose eyes are locked on Bishop's car with intensity.

Big Fan is not a great movie, although it is certainly a very good one and one you should watch. The biggest shortcoming is the ending, which doesn't quite pay off what the film has put us through. It takes us to the brink but then chickens out, and I haven't decided if that was wise or not.

On that note, it is necessary to point out that this movie was initially conceived as a broad sort of comedy. I skimmed through several reviews after I was done watching it and was surprised to find that some reviewers had seen it as a black comedy. Maybe it will play that way for you, but I only saw a few instances where the movie was really going for laughs, and those moments sit a bit uncomfortably with the tone of the rest of the film. Certainly there is the potential here for a 40 Year Old Virgin style comedy, but it would require a massive script overhaul and a completely different style of direction. This is, in fact, the bleakest movie I've seen in a long time. It is also very ambivalent about how we should feel about Paul. In Siegel's The Wrestler, we can sympathize with Randy "The Ram". We hope for him, because all in all he's a nice man, and he's trying to better his circumstances, even if that means desperately trying to recapture a past life. We're not quite so sure what to do about Paul. He is quite literally both protagonist and antagonist, the cause of his own masochistic self-annihilation. What does that mean for the film? It means The Wrestler was a better and more enjoyable movie, but Paul Aufiero is the more fascinating character.

So who is Paul? We never really find out completely, which I think was wise. We don't know when and how he became obsessed with football, because as far as the movie is concerned he always has been and always will be. We don't understand what motivates him, beyond a need to be heard and accepted, because we aren't privy to anything that happens to him prior to the beginning of the movie. He is barely a man; he represents the idea of obsession and inward hate.

The opening shot of the film is of Paul's parking attendant booth, tiny against the stark background of the parking garage. Paul's voice repeats over and over: "I can't tell you how sick I am..." It isn't until the next shot that we see Paul is practicing one of his radio diatribes, and that is just the first half of a sentence, not a declaration. But the first impression is the more honest, and the more lasting. Paul could not, in fact, tell you how sick he is, because he won't admit it even to himself.

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