Saturday, September 12, 2009

In Theaters: "Big Fan"

In an NPR interview, Patton Oswalt says he was drawn to his new starring vehicle Big Fan because of its similarity to dark 1970s character dramas like Fat City and The King of Marvin Gardens. Those influences come through, and clearly, in the finished product, which complements its grubby, low-budget aesthetic with a throwback vibe—like those films, from that more daring time, it gives it characters the freedom to live and breathe in their own worlds, and presents them without apology.

Oswalt plays Paul Aufiero, a diehard New York Giants fan who lives in a closed-off, sports-obsessed world. He toils away as a parking garage attendant, listening to sports talk radio and drafting his notes for his nightly call to “The Sports Dog.” Those calls (he’s known on the show as “Paul from Staten Island”) are his sole outlet, his single release valve for the day, but he has to do them quietly—though in his mid-30s, he still lives with his overbearing mother, his perpetual adolescence illustrated by his bedroom decorated with sports posters, his bed dressed with NFL sheets.

Paul’s favorite player is Giants quarterback Quantrell Bishop; one night, Paul and his only friend, Sal (Kevin Corrigan, spot-on), spot Bishop tooling around Staten Island and follow him to a Manhattan strip club. The two fans try to approach their hero, but a misunderstanding is followed by a melee; Paul ends up getting beaten senseless by his hero.

What follows—Paul’s uncertainty over what action to take, his family’s confusion and frustration with his timidity, his realization that the incident is preventing his QB from playing and what could be more important than that, and the slow-motion implosion of his entire world—unfolds with the inevitability and believability of documentary. The picture’s resemblance to Taxi Driver has been duly noted in many corners, but mostly on a purely superficial level; what writer/director Robert Siegel (the former Onion editor who penned The Wrestler) has most cleverly siphoned and repurposed from Paul Scrader’s brilliant script to that film is its structural ingenuity. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle is spurned by the girl of his dreams, and ends up lashing out—but at a surrogate, so as not to sully the object of his love. Siegel’s excellent screenplay toys with that notion, and he draws out his climactic sequence with enough skill to put more seasoned directors to shame.

Siegel’s visual style is so subtle, you may not realize how striking it is, and how thoroughly it’s working on you. He shoots in close—uncomfortably close at times—keeping Paul front and center and daring us to look away from his discomfort and misery. Oswalt, a brilliant stand-up comic (one of our best) making his dramatic debut, is up to the task; it’s an outstanding performance, raw and unvarnished and without a glimmer of dishonesty. And though the overall picture is grim and bleak, there is plenty of humor in the film; at a family gathering, Paul and his family watch his lawyer brother in a bad TV spot that’s perfectly executed, and there are throwaway jokes here and there to lighten things up (when Sal wonders what Bishop is doing in Staten Island, Paul guesses, “Maybe’s he’s here to see the Wu-Tang!”).

Big Fan runs a brisk 85 minutes, and my only real criticism of it is that it is perhaps too tight and efficient; I frankly wouldn’t have minded a little more of the first act, more of an opportunity to live in Paul’s world and soak in the rich details. But how often can you complain about a movie being too short and disciplined? Big Fan is a stark, vivid character study, and confirms what The Wrestler suggested: Siegel is an exciting, first-rate new talent.

"Big Fan" is currently playing in limited release.

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