Pathos, if played right, can be exhilarating, even oddly uplifting. Big Fan’s writer-director Robert Seigel and its star Patton Oswalt play it just right, making this small, sad tale of a New York Giants fan ring with a gritty, mesmerizing, nerve.
Any artist, filmmaker, or writer walks a dangerous line when exploring the depths of loserdom. Like heroic glorification or cheesy melodrama, it’s temptingly easy to overplay your hand with pathos, to lay it on so miserably thick it curdles and rots. But if you can stay along that edge between exploring the bleak drama of human sadness and slipping into depressing, emptiness or worse mockery, the results can be enriching.
All of which is to say Big Fan—the story of a New York Football Giants supporter who prefers the narrow, near-fantasy satisfaction of his sports fandom rather than the banality of the “successful” lives around him—walks that pathos line nicely.
Written and directed by Robert D. Seigel–a one-time editor of the satirical Onion newspaper, and screenwriter of The Wrestler–Big Fan stars comedian Patton Oswalt as Paul Aufiero, a 40-ish gnome of man working in a parking ramp and living in his mother’s home. But Paul isn’t sad or miserable—he escapes feeling like a failure because he’s carefully and happily cocooned himself and his self worth inside his all-encompassing love for the Giants. He measures himself and the quality of his life not by his paycheck, living quarters, or marital status but by the success of his carefully scripted calls to the local sports radio show and the gridiron fortunes of “his” team.
One night Paul and his friend Sal (the always queasily authentic Kevin Corrigan) spot Paul’s hero, Giants star linebacker Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), in their home turf of Staten Island and giddy with proximity to their idol, they follow Bishop and his entourage back to a Manhattan strip club. Finally working up the nerve to approach the lineman, Paul innocently sets off Bishop’s rage and takes a severe beating. From the very man whose replica jersey Paul wears every weekend on game day.
From there on Paul’s fandom, which had once comforted and protected him, takes on a dark claustrophobia. The Giants’ playoff hopes are threatened by the loss of Bishop, who’s suspended pending an investigation into the assault—an investigation that hinges on the testimony Paul is hesitant to give, despite suffering chronic headaches after spending three days in a coma.
After all, what do you do when the very thing you love hurts you? And you’re then asked to help destroy that thing you’ve used to prop up your own value? If you’re Paul, you become twisted into ineffectual knots trying to rationalize the love that defines you, exploits you, and almost killed you. Any metaphoric echoes of addiction or abusive relationships are clearly intentional.
Needless to say, despite Seigel’s satirical resume and Oswalt’s stand-up genius, Big Fan is not a comedy, but neither does it wallow in Paul’s small, seedy world. As played by Oswalt, Paul comes off as a relatively sharp guy—clever and quick-witted, if blissfully immune to any larger thoughts or ideas about the world beyond the Meadowlands. The Giants and his love for them are what define him as a human, and that’s all he has standing between him and the abyss of shattered delusion, the pit of terrifying self-realization.
If all this sounds like a colossal downer, let me assure you that for the most part Siegel, Oswalt play the pathos perfectly, letting the fluorescent yellow lighting and gritty hum of Paul’s world elevate Big Fan into a fascinating symphony. Sure there’s amusement to be had in watching Paul the sad, ugly clown in his Giants face paint, but there’s also a desperate energy in Oswalt’s performance that keeps us right there alongside the guy. In doing so, Big Fan is careful to remind us, lest we feel too smugly superior, that many of us have just as much of our self worth sunk into equally empty and exploitive pursuits and obsessions.
A softer, safer Taxi Driver for our age of celebrity and talk-radio self-expression, Big Fan asks what obsessive fans—of sports, music, film, politics or whatever—get from their dysfunctional idol worship. After all, what’s left in a hollowed-out life if its only illumination is from artificial stars?