Movie Review: Ann Hornaday on ‘Big Fan' With Patton Oswalt

Patton Oswalt, left, and Kevin Corrigan tread the line between comedy and tragedy.
Patton Oswalt, left, and Kevin Corrigan tread the line between comedy and tragedy. (First Independent Pictures Via Associated Press)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

Writer Robert Siegel turned heads last year with his acclaimed screenplay for "The Wrestler," in which Mickey Rourke made a triumphant comeback as the down-on-his-luck title character. With "Big Fan," Siegel has again created a closely observed, downbeat character study, this time with comedian Patton Oswalt starring in a breakout performance, as an obsessive New York Giants fan. Like "The Wrestler," "Big Fan" is about dreams, denial and the bitter wages of self-deception. And like the earlier film, "Big Fan" -- which marks Siegel's directorial debut -- doesn't tell a story as much as offer a painfully vivid portrait of one of life's perennial losers.

Thirty-six years old and still living with his mother on Staten Island, Paul Aufiero (Oswalt) lives in a tightly circumscribed world, defined by the tiny booth where he works as a parking garage attendant, the bed where he makes late-night calls to a New York sports radio station, and Giants Stadium, where Paul and his best friend, Sal (Kevin Corrigan), faithfully root for their home team from the parking lot. When Paul and Sal happen to spy star Giants quarterback Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) at large on Staten Island, they decide to follow him into Manhattan, where the athlete and his entourage retire for an evening of coke-fueled gentlemen's recreation. One of the funniest scenes in "Big Fan," which toes a shaky line between comedy and tragedy, is when a stripper plops herself down on Paul's lap and he strains around her nearly naked body to keep his eyes on the idol he really came to see.

To approach and kiss Quantrell's ring or keep a worshipful distance? "There aren't any rules," Sal insists, egging Paul on to introduce himself. But of course there are rules, and when Paul winds up violating that invisible boundary separating celebrities from their unwashed admirers, "Big Fan" begins to take its increasingly suspenseful turns for the darker.

As part of a fascinating recent trend in such films, "Big Fan" joins "Two Lovers" and "Momma's Man" as a particularly detailed depiction of contemporary Peter Pans, stalled somewhere between their Underoos and the far less comfortable responsibilities of adulthood. Paul's inability to grow up is never fully explained in "Big Fan," although it's clear he has a fraught, enmeshed relationship with his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz), who dutifully washes his New York Giants sheets and sweat shirts, while nagging him to be more like his lawyer brother, Jeff (Gino Cafarelli).

If Siegel has a clear, keen eye for the habits and habitats of thwarted boy-men, his compassion in "Big Fan" is occasionally harder to find. Thankfully, Oswalt imbues Paul with enough gravitas -- even a bent kind of dignity -- to keep him from being completely pathetic. But Siegel's depiction of the film's supporting characters -- especially Paul's family, whose members would have been right at home in Diane Arbus's portfolio -- too often borders on caricature. By the movie's strained, overheated climax, it's clear that Siegel is less interested in his protagonist as a character capable of transformation than as a human petri dish of futility and pathology.

Simply lifting the veil on that relatively obvious notion isn't enough to make "Big Fan" a fully realized movie. But as a slice of life and finely tuned character study, it proves that Siegel is a filmmaker of exceptional powers of observation and, we hope, still untapped potential.

Big Fan (86 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for profanity and some sexuality.

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