Film Reviews

Big Fan Robert D. Siegel

Rating - 6/10

A long shot of a Staten Island parking garage's ground floor is the first image in Robert D. Siegel's debut film Big Fan, where lone attendant, Paul Aufiero, listens to a late night talk radio show hosted by "Sports Dog."  Confined to a typically diminutive toll booth and scrawling fiery yet petty derisions in a notebook in response to an infamous Philadelphia Eagles fanatic "Philadelphia Phil," one immediately ascertains that Paul is a creature of habit and a man deliberately distanced from reality.  His complete preoccupation with the 16-game New York Giants' regular season schedule and verbal subjugation of other National Football Conference fans supersede all of life's more traditionally affecting opportunities.  Through the continuity of the opening sequence's distanced, stationary and artificially-illuminated contents, director Siegel effectively evokes the essence of Paul's belittled, meager and secluded life to craft an inadvertently blunt commentary on the current culture of sports fanatics in the United States.  For the uninitiated and less scholarly, football seems to be the perfectly prized obsession, a compacted and multifarious game of physical and mental duress.  Yet it's Seigel's more deceptive and darkly comedic misdirections that make Big Fan not just an interesting character study (aided by Patton Oswalt's commendable portrayal of Paul) but a reserved analysis of the consequences of fixation.  Unfortunately, while Siegel's layered and tortuous script is often transfixing, his directorial amateurism is highlighted in the jittery disoriented slideshow of fast cuts assembled throughout the brief 88-minute film.

Immediately after dialing his favorite radio show in the opening minutes, Paul is phoned by his equally obsessive and encouraging companion, Sal (Kevin Corrigan), to arrange a rallying trip to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, for their beloved "G-Men."  Through an urgent series of cuts that showcase the duo's horseplay, flaunting of team colors (blue, red and white), and "here we go, Giants!" chants near the entrance, Siegel leads one to believe that the two are season ticketholders despite their rather sedentary professional lives.  However, as Paul motions to Sal, "let's get our seats," they migrate from the gate back toward the parking area as the camera abruptly cuts to a car's muffler, then to an close-up of an engine with jumper cables clamped onto a battery accompanied by the sound of crowd noise and commentators.  A brief tracking shot trails an extension cord to the hood of the red car where a portable television rests.  Paul and Sal are in fact cheering their team from the comfort of lawn chairs in the tailgater's lot.  This scene encompasses Siegel's modus operandi in a grandiose way; by constructing an entire scene around pre-existing visual notions, he is able to pleasurably deceive viewers while producing a surreal sense of comedy and offbeat sympathy for the main character.  Perhaps Siegel's affection for these hoodwinking devices is derived from his 1999 to 2003 stint as editor-in-chief of the satirical newspaper The Onion.

While the sports subject is instantly elicited from the title of the film, Big Fan is more accurately a study of a man's maladjusted routine and subsequent descent into a self-created hell.  Paul's predicaments are created by relentless pursuance and then avoidance of his favorite defensive linebacker Quantrell Bishop (conveniently initialed Q.B.) after a confrontation at an upscale Manhattan nightclub.  Even though Paul stands to personally benefit by his revealing the details of this altercation to police, private investigators, lawyers and his own family, he unconditionally refuses to talk and publicly represses the incident while simultaneously fretting and sulking discreetly.  Paul hopes that his evasion and ultimate tenacity will benefit his team by thrusting Quantrell out of media frenzy and back into the league from which he was suspended as a result of the nightclub incident.  But, of course, Paul's inexorable stubbornness surfaces in prior circumstances as well.  At his nephew's seventh birthday party, his brother-in-law, who recognizes Paul's current dead-end situation as a parking attendant, offers him a job with upward mobility at Price Town.  While Paul is given the opportunity to adjust his unfortunate living condition with his mother and night work, he is too ignorant to recognize the love of family over love of a game.  "I have a job," he pronounces to his brother-in-law with a cynical tone before asserting the same statement a second time.  Childishly rebutting with a haphazard scenario where the stakes are reversed, Paul offers his brother-in-law a shortcut to a new profession since a dentist office is apparently depressing.  His awkwardly halted response is a result of insecurity and lack of people to nurture, which reverts his whims to those of an adolescent living with his mother, driving her car, and essentially subsisting under her rule (as she frequently berates him for the late night radio phone calls).  But as one-dimensionally oafish and pitiful as Paul may seem, Patton Oswalt understands the subtleties of expression extremely well, and his humane and methodical performance adds dimension to an unremarkable entity.  In the final act of the film, Paul applies Eagles green and black face paint in a Pennsylvania rest stop's bathroom; Oswalt's writhing facial expressions showcase a man in severe torment who decides to act a façade in the face of desperate necessity, yet his countenance simultaneously displays an adamant allegiance.

Composed of an eclectic selection of oldies and indie tunes, the soundtrack to Big Fan features numbers from Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, Krayzie Bone, John Cale, Battles, to John Prine.  Unfortunately, many of these tunes add little to convey Paul's disposition, the ambiance of setting or narrative arc.  In fact, Big Fan is most effective when Siegel allows his scenes to naturalistically unfold without any kind of marked intervention.  When applying music or utilizing cuts, sequences easily become muddled or intrusive; for example, as the family huddles around the television to witness Paul's brother's self-made commercial for his law practices, a close up of each character's face is profiled in individual cuts.  Siegel hastily buries the event and disorients audiences by attempting to compact all of them within a brief narrative moment.  Therefore, a more suitable practice is to prop a stationary camera at the far side of the room in front of the furniture for a panoramic and objective demonstration.

Typically, a likable protagonist experiences trials and tribulations that often flip his or her mindset 180 degrees from an origin point.  Perhaps this notion is simply augmented by the abundance of award-winning dramas and action pictures littering the American film industry, but Paul is a sharp converse to convention as a character who has conceivably learned nothing at the conclusion of the film.  Following physical and mental suppression and disregard to personal responsibility, Paul adheres to his self-definition as someone who is classified not by any innate trait but instead by his sports franchise endorsement.  Of course this epiphany escorts the rhetorical theme of the movie, "are sports fans sick?" which Marilyn Ferdinand prominently introduces in her film blogBig Fan modestly attempts to tackle tough issues, but Siegel's script seems to delight more in its own self-aware absurdity of Paul's behavior.  It is highly possible that the director did not intend for the film to represent a broad critique of team loyalties, but it serves that function well enough, and the film is constructed to universally appeal to veteran sports fans as well as with those who detest professional sports and overpaid athletes alike.  While those assets aid Big Fan's ingenuity, the film would be altogether more enthralling if Siegel hadn't frequently insisted on creating a false sense of tension for comedic and dramatic effect with panicked rapid fire cuts.  As it is, Big Fan is certainly worth a casual viewing for its idiosyncratic entertainment, but it has the potential to provoke prudent thought.