Thursday, September 3, 2009

Big Fan (2009)

In Big Fan, Patton Oswalt inhabits Paul Aufiero, a painfully realistic character, a needy, dead-end man who latches onto his small nugget of fame as he calls in nightly to a sports talk-radio show to display his fandom of the New York Giants to the region by way of his angst-filled pep-talk monologues which he endlessly writes and rewrites all day as he sits at his job in a parking garage. He’s going nowhere fast, but he barely has time to notice as long as he can keep things all Giants, all the time. It would be a shame to reveal too much about what happens to this character. Shame is exactly what the editors of the trailer and the writers of the official studio synopsis should feel, for revealing is precisely what they did. It’s far better to merely describe the characters, rather than risk betraying the small (near) perfection to be found in the structure of the story created by writer-director Robert Siegel (he previously wrote the screenplay to last year’s most excellent The Wrestler).

Paul lives with his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz), a tough old woman with pain for her son etched onto her face. His siblings are more successful than he. His brother (Gino Cafarelli), for example, is a lawyer. But to Paul, the Giants are the only thing that matters. This is a dim, grimy, gray Staten Island neighborhood, which Siegel shows us through the spray tans, the breast augmentations, the scrimping, the scheming, and 50 Cent on child’s birthday cake. These are working- and middle-class people struggling, but Paul barely notices, or perhaps suppresses his awareness of his and his neighbors’ circumstances, by relishing his team and his small talk-radio call-in fame. To him, he is an integral part of the team. His best friend (Kevin Corrigan) will listen to the radio show and afterwards call Paul saying “you were great tonight!”

Needless to say, Paul’s fandom becomes a problem. After our slow introduction to the world of the character, there is a sequence of slow-building suspense that ratchets higher and higher as Paul’s fandom causes him to become the victim of a crime. The sequence is superb, closing out the first act with a shock. The second act, however, spins its wheels. The irony, played for both humor and pathos, is that the Giant’s chances of winning the season are now actually in Paul’s hands, but once that is established, and wrung out of its usefulness, the characters continue to fret about what will happen. As interesting as it is that Paul becomes more aware of reality at the same time his fantasy comes true, it’s a great relief when the third act kicks in.

The actions Paul begins to take are kept hidden for some time. Half-glimpsed at the margins of the frame are props which give us clues. Mirroring the first act, the third act is a great showy sequence of slow-building dread mixed with sick suspense. The release of this tension – the punchline, if you will – is one of the biggest rushes of satisfaction I’ve had from any film so far this year.

The film is two perfect sequences sandwiching a flabby midsection, but even when it’s stalling, I was never outside of the film. Paul is a compelling character, a believable character, and I cared what would happen to him, I cared about the other characters in his world, I cared about what he would decide to do next. This is a comedy, sure, but it’s also an affecting character study. It’s not as good as The Wrestler, but Siegel has crafted another interesting, memorable character (though he’s no Randy “the Ram”) and a fairly good movie in which to house him.

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