Robert D. Siegel
Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 22 May 2009
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston
In his debut as writer-director, Robert D. Siegel (screenwriter for The Wrestler) takes on the curious subculture of sports talk radio. It’s a phenomenon ripe for parody - cogent sporting analysis frequently gives way grown men publically airing crackpot theories, engaging in unabashed idolatry, and striking up petty rivalries with one another - and with Big Fan Siegel deftly teases out the humor in the goofy grandstanding of the regular callers. The film’s titular fan is Paul, a slouchy, mostly-unhappy parking garage attendant and devotee of the New York Giants who gets through his boring work nights by scribbling down diatribes to unleash on the airwaves after hours. He lives for the Sunday games, but, unable to afford tickets, Paul and his best friend Sal (played by a droll Kevin Corrigan) spend game days tailgating with a portable television just outside of the Giants’ stadium.
Siegel creates an extreme character in Paul, but what sets his film apart is that Paul never descends into caricature. Siegel finds what’s funny about those cramped, handwritten speeches and parking-lot bound outings, but he also finds what’s poignant about them. Like last year’s Goliath, about a disgruntled cat lover, Big Fan offers a tragicomic look at a routinely disappointed man who has found something to cling to. Fandom gives Paul - and, one can guess, a number of those other voices haunting the late night airwaves - an escape from the more disheartening facets of daily life. Sure, Paul has that dreary job and an unhappy home life with his aging mom, but where the Giants are involved, he is suddenly a part of an unseen “we,” always ready to fight for his team on the air, if not alongside them.
The story’s serious undercurrents are never far from the surface, and Siegel keeps the proceedings as searching and squirmingly painful as they are funny. In addition to giving a nod to the real and imagined camaraderie of fans, Siegel gives more than a wink to the vicarious thrills and under-acknowledged homoeroticism of sports fandom. When Paul’s mother confronts him with his siblings’ perceived successes (homes, marriages, children) and he explodes with “I don’t want what they’ve got!” One does wonder: what, exactly, does he want? Whatever it is, it remains dismally out of reach.
Paul’s personal nadir comes when he has an unhappy run-in with his favorite player that tests his dedication to the utmost, and we watch with something between empathy and detached horror as he struggles to cope. Patton Oswalt (who also demonstrated impressive dramatic chops in a recent episode of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse) is well-cast and fully up to the task of rendering Paul sympathetic but unstable, a combination that keeps his characterization interesting and the audience appropriately jittery. Paul’s face, halved by team-colored warpaint late in the film, becomes an unexpected mask of tragedy as the tone grows heavier, but fear not—just when you think Siegel has allowed the proceedings to descend too far into madness - and dangerously close to cliché - he rips the rug out from under you again, to great effect.
At a post-screening Q&A with Siegel and Corrigan, the latter related a long and very amusing anecdote about a cringe-worthy teenage encounter with his hero Robert De Niro, the moment serving to underscore the fact that Big Fan isn’t so much a sports film as a character study that peeks at of the whys and wherefores of obsession. With Patton and Corrigan supplying the human heart, and Siegel honing the sharp comic edges, it’s a potent study indeed.
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