Patton Oswalt, appearing after a showing of his new movie Big Fan, summed up Portland well with a story about a guy waiting for the crosswalk while there were no cars and no people around. “It’s a beautiful city that someone desperately needs to set an ambition bomb off in,” he said.
Oswalt plays Paul, a parking garage attendant that spends his time at work listening to the Sports Dogg’s radio show. During his shift, he crafts hackneyed rants for the radio (calling people “bozos,” having a beef with an Eagles fan named Philadelphia Phil) for when he gets off work. He lives with his mom, and he commutes with his best friend Sal (played by the always great Kevin Corrigan) to Giants Stadium to watch games on TV from the parking lot. One night, he sees his favorite player (he has a shirtless poster of said player in his bedroom, and has vaguely erotic dreams about him) in Staten Island and decides to follow him in order to meet him. This eventually leads to the player beating him up in a mid-town Manhattan strip club. The rest of the movie is about how Paul deals with the consequences from the beating; physical (life-threatening concussion), social (family wants him to sue), and athletic (the Giants go on a losing streak).
What makes this movie work is the perfect pairing of director and actor with Robert Siegel and Patton Oswalt. The dark and obsessive tone of the movie is surprising (and oft-remarked) considering the pedigree of these two. Oswalt’s one of the top stand-up comics working today, and Siegel’s the former editor-in-chief of the Onion. Then again, it’s entirely expected coming off of Siegel’s previous script, The Wrestler.
Siegel, in his first go as a director, uses the same verité techniques that Darren Aronofsky used to portray Randy “The Ram” Robinson in order to portray Paul. He’s followed with a hand-held camera, which, according to Oswalt, was both a stylistic choice and a financial necessity. Both are shown almost completely free of judgment from the filmmaker, leaving the audience to decide their own feelings. The two characters are outsiders who fit perfectly in their fanatic niches that most of the general public doesn’t understand and genuinely love what they do, despite the physical and emotional harm that it does to them. Wow, after writing that sentence, Big Fan is more like The Wrestler than I even realized while in the theater.
That’s not meant to disparage the movie at all; despite a similarity in plot points, where Siegel hits his marks is in the details. Paul’s brother’s McMansion and hilariously bad commercial for his law firm. The Sports Dogg’s call-in show with PG-rated smack-talk trying desperately to sound like Jim Rome. The way Paul prepares his Coca-Cola. The slow-burning Taxi Driver-esque climax. At its best, Big Fan takes you into Paul’s world and makes you truly understand what it is to live and die with every game. For sports fans (like myself), it’s a semi-depressing mirror that leaves you thinking, “God, I hope I’m not like that.”
When Oswalt arrived in the theater, he was dressed in his best for a show later that night at the Newmark, a smart gray blazer and clear plastic large framed glasses, that made him vaguely look like a Miami Vice coke-dealer/snitch. First, he thanked the attendees for being the one audience the movie had all weekend and explained that he was there because there was literally no money for advertising the movie. He had to get the word out any way possible. He then spoke about how the movie came about, with Siegel using his newfound heat from The Wrestler to make Big Fan, a script he wrote in 2002 and then specifically choosing Oswalt as his lead (after some “big names” turned it down, according to Patton.) After getting through the movie hype, he spoke about his obsessions – comics, television, and film. He advocated Up for a nomination in the newly expanded Best Picture category, said that Friday Night Lights is the best show on TV, and told everyone about a pitch he made to DC Comics called Arkham’s Arsenal, featuring the villains of Batman in a Dirty Dozen role during World War II.
Here’s hoping that Oswalt gets some due recognition from his performance, and maybe even a chance to top Mickey Rourke’s virtuoso Best Actor acceptance speech at the Independent Spirit Awards from last year.
Big Fan is showing at Cinema 21 through Thursday.