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Paul (Patton Oswalt, left), with Sal (Kevin Corrigan), doesn’t mind his football-obsessed life until it’s messed up by an unnecessary plot twist.

2 out of 4 stars


Big Fan

  • Written and directed by Robert Siegel
  • Starring Patton Oswalt and Kevin Corrigan
  • Classification: 14A

Sports fandom is an obsessive business. But obsessions, existing inside the head of the besotted, are hard to dramatize, and this one is no exception. Nick Hornby did a very credible job in Fever Pitch , a chronological memoir documenting the highs and lows of his life-long devotion to the Arsenal soccer team. Much less credible were the two movies based on his book, the first British and the second American, both struggling to get the action out of the guy's psyche and up onto the screen. So Big Fan faces a big challenge and, if like me you suffer from a similarly obsessed condition, the fascination of the film lies in how that challenge gets addressed - where it goes right and how it goes wrong. This is a flick whose failures are at least as interesting as the successes.

Making his directing debut is Robert Siegel, who earlier wrote the script for The Wrestler , which approached that quasi-sport through the battered and maudlin perspective of a quasi-athlete. Here, the game is professional football and the focus has shifted to the spectator. Paul is a New York Giants fan. In fact, short and stubby and still living with mom at the ripe age of 36, Paul is little more than a New York Giants fan. That's pretty much his life, and that's just the way he likes it. Early on, so do we.

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First, the successes. In the title role, Patton Oswalt inhabits this character, daring us not to do to Paul what his hectoring mother and his lawyer brother do constantly - rebuke him, pity him, dismiss him as a pathetic loser. (Shrieks his mom on the subject of his love life: "I know exactly who you date - your hand.") Yet whatever his fondness for self-abuse, Paul is incapable of self-pity. To the contrary, this is a man content with his lot. He's relatively bright and gainfully employed as a parking attendant at a Staten Island lot. There, enclosed in his glass booth, he has ample time to indulge the glass box of his obsession - savouring last week's victory, studying the stats sheet, writing a script for his next appearance on a sports radio call-in show, where the host loves his informed screeds.

Aided by Oswalt's nuanced performance, these establishing scenes neatly capture the distinct whiff of addiction that attends fandom at its most intense. (For a further whiff, just consult our online edition, click on any story about the Toronto Maple Leafs, then peruse the comments that follow and picture the commentators.) Like most addicts, Paul derives both pleasure and pain from his habit, and enjoys the company of fellow junkies. On any given Sunday, he and his buddy Sal (Kevin Corrigan) can be found at the tailgate party outside Giants stadium. But when the lucky ticket-holders file in, they stay behind, tensely watching the game on a TV hooked up to the car battery and revelling in the sheer proximity of the crowd, sharing in its cascade of roars and moans. This is terrific stuff.

Then, suddenly, come the failures. Siegel lacks the faith that he can spin out this "normal" obsession to feature length and still retain our interest. So the script goes searching for contrived drama, and locates it when Paul happens to spot the Giants' star linebacker on the street one night, follows him to a Manhattan strip club, saunters up for a friendly chat and, for his troubles, finds himself on the receiving end of steroid rage - the linebacker beats him into a three-day coma.

After our victim wakes up, the cops want him to testify, his brother wants him to sue and, when Paul refuses on both counts for fear of getting the star player suspended, the movie wants us to suspend our disbelief with a crane. Sorry, can't be done. Obsessive fandom already comes with an ample supply of everyday absurdities; adding these concocted others, drummed up just to advance the plot, deserves to be flagged for piling-on. What begins as credibly absurd has morphed into incredibly silly - the movie loses us when it stops trusting us.

Ardent fans can be nutcases but, given their vast numbers and global reach, they're nutcases whose collective hysteria is fascinating precisely because it's commonplace. There's no need to embroider what's inherently comic, often dramatic too, and that's where Big Fan goes badly wrong - its flamboyant plot is the half-time show that ruins the game.

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