Hang-ups of a sports radio caller: ‘Big Fan’ a darkly funny character study
He provided the voice of Remy the rat in “Ratatouille,’’ but the actor/comedian Patton Oswalt has a face like a rubber bulldog, with jowls that crowd his features in toward the middle. The eyes are small, preoccupied, and at a certain point in “Big Fan,’’ they go completely dead. That’s when the movie steps off the ledge.
A bleakly funny character study of a very particular species of urban fauna - the sports radio call-in fanatic - “Big Fan’’ is compulsively watchable. You want to look away but you can’t. To his mom, Paul Aufiero (Oswalt) is a middle-aged bum who lives at home and works in a parking garage. To legions of wee-hour listeners, he’s “Paul from Staten Island,’’ phoning in every night to loudly defend his beloved New York Giants in “improvised’’ rants he drafts on a legal pad.
Paul’s a schlub and a loser, but he’s passionate in his loserdom. This boggles the minds of those who say they love him: his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz); his brother the personal injury lawyer (Gino Cafarelli); the brother’s wife, an alarming real-Jersey-housewife type played by Serafina Fiore. Paul doesn’t care what they think, and why should he? He’s got every sports nut in the Tri-State area hanging on his words. The movie taps into the mouthy pathology of jock-radio with love and absurdity.
“Big Fan’’ is about what happens when reality comes along and beats Paul up. He and his equally hopeless best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) - they go to Giants Stadium and watch the games on TV in the parking lot - spot star player Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) in their outer-borough neighborhood one evening. Dazzled, they stalk him all the way to a Times Square gentleman’s club. Paul makes his move. Things get ugly.
What happens next? Without giving too much away, the world suddenly notices Paul Aufiero - at least, the tabloid press and a NYC police detective (Matt Servitto) do - and Paul quickly decides he doesn’t like being noticed. “Big Fan’’ follows its antihero from a hospital bed back to a life that could be bigger, richer, better, if only he wanted. All he has to do is give up everything that sustains his wobbly sense of self.
The movie marks the directing debut of screenwriter Robert D. Siegel, who wrote “The Wrestler’’ (another character piece) and who clearly knows his turf. Remember those shots of the Pulaski Skyway during the opening credits of “The Sopranos’’? That’s Siegel country: an urban wasteland where everyone’s hopes have been beaten so deeply into the concrete that the only recourse is bitter laughter or escape into fantasy.
Sports radio gives Paul the latter, which is all he needs. The most bizarrely poignant moment in a movie filled with them comes when Paul’s mother nags her son to get a life like his brother has, like everyone has, and he snaps back at her, “I don’t want what they got!’’ It’s the sulky rage of a big baby, and Oswalt gets every nuance.
By this point, Paul has fixed his paranoia on a call-in rival named “Phil from Philadelphia’’ - Michael Rapaport provides the character’s voice and eventually his face. “Big Fan’’ appears headed into the territory of “Taxi Driver’’ and “The King of Comedy,’’ movies I’m sure Siegel has engraved on his heart.
Oswalt is no De Niro, though, and Paul no Travis Bickle. The character’s sights are too low, his mania too small-time. Come on - it’s sports radio, the last refuge of the barstool blowhard. In their hearts, Siegel and his star admire their hero’s passion, no matter how delusional. They know that if you can’t play the game, getting really close to it may be all that keeps you alive.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.