Sunday, February 7, 2010

Movie Review: "Big Fan"


Spoiler alert: Don't read part two until you see "Big Fan."

Part I

“The Wrestler” is one of the most epic movies I’ve ever taken in. Like director Darren Aronofsky’s prior release “Requiem for a Dream,” though, it is also a film I will not be able to watch more than a handful of times.
If you’ve seen “The Wrestler” you know that it chronicles the long, painful decline of a former professional wrestling hero, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke). To truly understand what makes “Big Fan,” the follow-up and directorial debut for “Wrestler” scribe Robert D. Siegel, even more soul-crushing you have to understand that this main character has never had any hope at all. At least Randy was a star at one time. Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), on the other hand, lives in self-imposed isolation, content to live with his mother and work in a toll booth.
A lot of “Big Fan” is about delusion. It’s also about how we reconcile our vision of what the truth is with reality itself. The main conflict of “Big Fan” centers on these two themes.
Aufiero is a passionate New York Giants fan who spends his days composing tirades about his obsession. At night he unleashes these thoughts on the world in the form of a radio call-in show. In this format he is known as “Paul from Staten Island” and is regular on the program. He also has an ongoing feud with another caller, a rival Philadelphia Eagles loyalist known as “Philadelphia Phil.” Each plans his responses based on the reactions of his rival.
What’s even sadder about Paul is that he doesn’t even have enough money to truly indulge the one thing he lives for. The closest he can come to being a part of a live game is tailgating in the parking lot and experiencing the game vicariously along with his clueless best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan).
This and the poster of his favorite Giants player, Quantrell Bishop, are the nearest Paul ever gets to his precious. All this changes one night when he and Sal spot Bishop at a gas station and they decide to follow. The pair trail the star and his entourage to a shady part of town and then to a strip club (complete with a $20 per person entrance fee and a required purchase of a nine-dollar Budweiser each.)
Paul and Sal sit across the club from their stalking victim, completely ignoring the bevy of naked women in front of them. They decide to try and connect with Bishop in the bathroom, but instead lose their nerve at the last minute. Then they buy Bishop a drink and have the waitress send it over. When Bishop refuses, looking more freaked out by the minute, they finally go all in and introduce themselves.
At first everything is going fairly well. The intoxicated group gives some gentle ribbing to the disheveled duo. It’s lighthearted.
Then Paul lets it slip that they followed them here.
And things take a turn.
Enraged, Bishop explodes out of his seat and he and the rest of his crew join in beating Paul to within an inch of his life.
Paul doesn’t wake up for three days. When he finally regains consciousness he finds that the Giants lost their last contest and Bishop has been suspended on a game-by-game basis. Soon afterwards his lawyer brother drops by urging him to sue and a detective swings by looking for information.
Paul spends the rest of the film grappling with either turning Bishop in and hurting the team he loves or keeping quiet and moving on.

Part II

Editors’s note: There are major spoilers past this point. A large part of the reason I was so fascinated by this movie is that what you read above is pretty much all I knew about it before I watched it. The second half was a complete mystery to me.
You’ve been warned.


Wow. How about that ending? I totally didn’t see that coming. As soon as I saw the gun and the car and the look on his face I thought it was all over. I didn’t know who he was going to kill, but I was sure that SOMEBODY was going to get it.
I really enjoyed the casting of Michael Rappaport as Philadelphia Phil. It was a really nice touch. I didn’t even recognize him from the radio portions leading up to it. He’s a truly great actor and really believable for the part. I liked how they made him just as obsessed as Paul, but somehow less socially awkward. Sure, he’s a jerk, but at least he was watching the game in a bar with several friends. There’s a more social aspect to it for him.
On a side note, I thought the masturbation scenes with Paul in his room were interesting. He has NFL sheets on a bed that sits directly underneath a giant Quantrell Bishop poster and no women to be seen anywhere. We can only assume that this strong black man plays some part in Paul’s fantasy. This is further solidified by the fact that he has trouble reaching orgasm after the attack, his dreams shattered by the painful reality of it.
Just like “The Wrestler,” the final scene of “Big Fan” really haunted me. From the time the beating occurs all the way until the end is really the story of him piecing the egg shells of his world back together. Getting excited when Sal shows him the schedule for next season is the pinnacle of his delusion.
Generally we see the main character of any given movie go from the “no” to the “yes” (to paraphrase “Waking Life.”) They start out one place and end up another. The arc of “Big Fan” is more elastic. During the course of the plot, Paul basically moves from “no” to “maybe” to “hell, no.”
Siegel is obviously doing this to make us question if this is such a bad thing. Even as he sits in jail, Paul ends things with a big, hopeful smile.
“It’s going to be a great year,” he says, beaming.
How can you really argue with that? He seems content to live in his constructed reality even after he was nearly thrown through an escape hatch. He knows the score and he has optioned to change nothing. If anything, he’s even more defiant now.
Even though I don’t personally consider this healthy behavior, who am I to say that someone else can’t live their lives this way if they so choose? Siegel obviously agrees with this viewpoint because he drops all sorts of hints throughout. Prior to the incident, Paul’s lawyer brother shows the family his crappy new television commercial where he exposes himself as the sleaziest kind of ambulance chaser. Paul’s mother saves mounds of Chinese sauce packets in clear plastic bags with no plan for ever using them all up.
Knowing how the story ends, it’s obvious in retrospect that these details were dropped as a way of justifying Paul’s decision later.
If these people are the sane ones, the movie concludes, give me my own craziness any day.

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