If you're a loser by society's standards, yet you refuse to accept or even acknowledge that label, then -- technically speaking -- does it still apply? That's the question writer/director Robert Siegel asks about Paul Aufiero, the football-obsessed, nonconformist character in Big Fan, and it's just one of the nuances that makes the film such a fascinating psychological study in fandom. The term "fan" is tossed around so casually these days that it's easy to forget its somewhat more ominous origins. Paul is more of a fanatic than a fan -- his obsession with the New York Giants has almost certainly impeded his personal growth and social development -- but despite appearing somewhat pathetic to the casual observer (or even his close family), the truth is that his misfit status empowers him. He's almost an inversion of Siegel's character of Randy "The Ram" Robinson in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, and the same could be said about the film itself; Siegel's impressive directorial debut most certainly lacks the autumnal tone and quiet reflection that endeared Aronofsky's film to critics and audiences, but it's still a riveting character study made all the more watchable by Patton Oswalt's manic lead performance.
New Jersey native Paul Aufiero is the New York Giants' biggest fan. A thirtysomething parking garage attendant who still lives with his mother, Paul eats, sleeps, and breathes football. At work he's constantly listening to AM sports radio, and in his off-hours he phones in to his favorite show to defend his beloved team against Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport), an outspoken Eagles fan who takes great delight in taunting Giants fans over the airwaves. One night, while eating a slice of pizza in a local restaurant, Paul and his best friend, Sal (Kevin Corrigan), notice Giants quarterback Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) gassing up his SUV across the street. Impulsively, they follow their idol to a Manhattan strip club. When they finally work up the courage to approach Bishop, the festive atmosphere in the club quickly sours and Paul's hero pummels him into a coma. Awakening in a hospital three days later, Paul suddenly finds himself at the center of a media circus. His brother, an ambulance-chasing lawyer, wants to sue, but all Paul wants is for his favorite team to thrive. Since Bishop has been suspended as a result of the investigation, however, the Giants are on a losing streak. Later, when the pressure from the media, his family, and Philadelphia Phil becomes too much to bear, Paul finally snaps.
Siegel seems to have a knack for writing rueful characters, but with his second screenplay he refreshingly opts for satire over sentiment (perhaps no surprise given his former role as editor-in-chief of The Onion). Though at first this may be somewhat off-putting for fans of The Wrestler who suspected Siegel was moving in a more mainstream direction, it's precisely that dark, biting undercurrent that reveals the writer/director's strongest traits as a storyteller. Big Fan doesn't fit neatly into any specific genre, but that just makes it all the more interesting for viewers who savor the rare film that really gives them something to chew on. Siegel truly understands the mindset of the rabid fan, and one needn't be into sports to appreciate his insight, because regardless of the direction in which it's focused, the attitudes that go along with being a rabid enthusiast are somewhat universal.
And while the film may treat fandom as something of a compulsive mental illness, it isn't afraid to poke fun at it a little bit by exploring the ways in which a fan is created as well. At what point does a parent's eagerness to share their own personal tastes in sports and entertainment with their impressionable children cross the line into the inappropriate? A key scene in which a seven-year-old is presented with a birthday cake decorated with bullet holes and the image of a strapped 50 Cent highlights the fact that contemporary society's celebration of petty thuggery stretches well beyond the arena of sport; and a subsequent scene in which Paul savors the rapper's sugary-sweet visage while impatiently rejecting a relative's patronizing pleas to strive for "something better" reveals just how strangely we're looked at when we consciously opt to reject the status quo. Somewhere along the line, we've come to equate personal happiness with the high-paying job, the house in the suburbs, and the perfect family. But who's to say a less popular concept of personal happiness, however unusual it may seem to the masses, is any less valid? Paul's family most certainly equates money and success with personal satisfaction, but seen through Siegel's lens, they're infinitely more miserable than the man they pity.
If you're looking for subtlety, you're bound to be disappointed by Big Fan (one scene in the film literally sees a despondent Paul shuffling beneath a sign that reads "Male Ego"), though who's to say that's necessarily a bad thing? Sometimes a little sting of the obvious is just the thing to make us realize that we've grown numb to the idiocy all around us. Sure, Siegel's skills as a director could use some sharpening, but it's the words and ideas that make Big Fan such an absorbing film, and since it's his first outing behind the camera it seems unfair to criticize the film's aesthetic shortcomings too harshly. Because of its pungent skewering of contemporary social mores, Big Fan shares more in common with a film like Idiocracy than it does with something like The Fan (the most obvious comparison), and though Siegel's caustic brand of social commentary may not be as disarmingly farcical as Mike Judge's, it's arguably just as effective.