The writer-director of Big Fan, Robert Siegel, who also wrote The Wrestler, has an obvious knack for concocting characters on the margins and placing them into a hyper-marginalized existence. The Wrestler, for example, had Randy “The Ram” Robinson as an extreme case (we hope) of a hapless pro down on his luck living in a world that gives him few human connections, fewer options, and seems hell-bent on taking everything he is and has. The Ram’s story is bleak house, but there are moments of relief and optimism, however fleeting, that break up the depression and make the film bearable.
Big Fan, on the other hand, is more ambitious; ostensibly an examination of obsession and how sports superfans like Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) can slip off the precarious precipice of reality into the vortex of fantasy. But Siegel can’t focus long enough on that goal, instead distracted by a glut of stereotypes he seems to feel are necessary -- of sports fans, of talk show radio callers, of star athletes, of ambulance chasers, of plastic-boobed bimbos, of old ladies, of Staten Islanders, of middle-aged homebodies.
Siegel goes wrong by not caring about his characters. He presents caricatures with a wink and a point, seemingly asking, “Aren’t you glad you’re not living that guy’s life?” Indeed, the people that populate Big Fan aren’t mere eccentrics; they’re worse case scenarios.
Paul takes devotion to sports, especially to the New York Giants, to extremes by living, breathing, and literally taking one for his team. He’s a mid-thirtysomething who lives with his old mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz) on Staten Island, is a chronic masturbator, works as a night attendant in a parking garage, and is a regular caller on a local sports radio show. He has an unhealthy fascination with Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), a primadonna stud defensive lineman on the Giants -- he wear’s QB’s jersey, dissects his playmaking abilities, and has a poster featuring a shirtless Bishop hanging on his bedroom wall. During a not-so-chance encounter with QB at an upscale Manhattan strip club, Paul gets beaten within an inch of his life by his hero, throwing both his life and team into disarray.
Siegel paints Paul so stereotypically that he becomes archetypal -- after all, isn’t Paul exactly what so many people describe when talking about middle-aged losers who live at home? Oswalt does his best to save Big Fan with a heroic performance, but his work is in service to an exceedingly offensive film that surrounds Paul with characters built by piling one disgusting cliché on top of another.
Paul’s mother is the little old Italian lady shuffling between doctor’s appointments and wringing her hands over what she did wrong with her son. She squirrels away packets of soy and duck sauce from innumerable meals of Chinese take-out and holds her despicable other son, Jeff (Gino Caferelli), as the ideal Paul should aspire. Jeff he has a huge house, a huge bank account, a huge ego, and a wife with a huge rack. Never mind that Jeff is a self-aggrandizing personal injury lawyer who likely bilked hapless clients out of settlements, who considers himself a suave Soprano or Gotti type, and got his wife, Gina (Serafina Fiore), who was once his secretary, by cheating with her while he was still married. As for that wife, she’s fake from head to toe and is what comes to mind when you think “Real Housewives of Staten Island.”
In the end, Big Fan seems more concerned with the freak show that is its characters than in actually telling a story. When it does decide to settle into narrative, it apes Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. But unlike that classic cinematic tale of rampant obsession, there is no black humor, no dark joy, and, worse, no sense of nuance. Like Paul, De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin lived at home with his mother and lived on the margins of “normal society.” But where Rupert was a fully formed character who sought to find meaning in his life by connecting with fame and creating those connections though mostly illegal means, Paul is one-dimensional, content to observe and react and marinate in what he already has. He’s happy with his life as it is, but that itself is a problem because it plays into the gross stereotype: losers who live at home have no ambition.
Big Fan can’t be accused of lack of ambition, however. If anything, Siegel’s film has too much of it. He tries for a Scorsesian film dissecting how obsession impacts loners, and some people have compared his film to Taxi Driver. But like with the comparison to The King of Comedy, this ultimately falls short. Those Scorsese films respect characters enough not to simply exploit them. The same can’t be said for Big Fan and its sideshow attitude towards its characters that are held up for ridicule and cheap amusement than good storytelling, which is more in line with Tod Browning’s Freaks than anything in the Scorsese filmography.