“Movies are taking so little risks,” comedian Patton Oswalt asserted on a recent podcast with sports columnist and former “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” writer Bill Simmons. “Everything is being messed with way more on TV than in movies right now.”
The burgeoning film actor, who renders an encompassing performance as the title character in First Independent Pictures’ wistful comedy “Big Fan,” continued: “TV is the way movies were in the late 60s and early 70s. That’s where all the risks are being taken, where the networks, just like the studios in the 60s, they’ve thrown their hands in the air, and they go, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing anymore. We don’t know what’s happening. Let’s just trust these guys.’”
This observation begs a question: If HBO, Showtime and even traditional network and basic cable channels have reinvigorated episodic television, why doesn’t public broadcasting take an example from notable European-based television stations with feature film divisions – such as BBC Films, FilmFour or France’s Canal+ — and venture into an undeveloped niche by supporting, nurturing and televising small, sharp films like Robert D. Siegel’s “Big Fan”? Instead of frizzy-haired classical pop poseurs, hideous extravaganzas with titles like “Celtic Ruckus,” and poorly-disguised infomercials the length of a college football game, what if PBS pledge drives became an occasion for premiering indie films like this murky, discomforting comedy, produced internally by “Big Fan Productions,” where sports idolatry overwhelms a fan’s actual sentient existence?
Oswalt is Paul Aufiero, a 36-year-old parking lot attendant who lives at home with his mother, and is, to the exclusion of all other pursuits, a New York Giants junky. He jots sports-talk inanity into his notebook in his booth with pen-chewing intensity and intently rehearses the trite, clichéd lines he’ll deliver as “Paul from Staten Island” during his daily late-night sports-talk radio phone calls. But he’s not a sports-bar jock itching to impress the tavern with his knowledge. (For a fan who dedicates so much time to writing, there’s no feverish blogging; he lives in a house with no internet.) Instead he’s a contented, hermetic guy with no discernible desire other than pining for his team. “Big Fan” has no love interest; excluding Paul’s suffocating romance with his sports team.
Paul detests his lumpenprole family: a know-it-all attorney brother and his absurdly pneumatic wife, an insipid sister and her bloodless middle-management husband, and his hectoring mom (a bracing Marcia Jean Kurtz), who finds her son contemptuous, and interrupts his late-night phone calls with abrasive heavy-handedness. A first-time director, Siegel, who wrote “The Wrestler,” flips the perspective in “Big Fan” from the athletic performer to the spectator in the cheap seats; the acerbic script is written, seemingly, with a charcoal pencil so that especially the family scenes, which are obviously played verbally for the laughs, are tinged with acidic characterizations.
His only pal is long-time friend, Sal (played by Kevin Corrigan with his usual stellar laconic, understated style.) Corrigan, who regularly summons the image of what it may have been like if John Cazale had hosted “Remote Control,” has a wonderful gift for earning laughs from slowly enunciating his words – perhaps currently only Christopher Walken can utter the phrase “root beer” with such witty distinction and precision — so that each of the words is exquisitely, methodically mulled over.
One evening, by happenstance, as they’re peering out of a pizzeria’s window with slices stuffed in their mouths, Paul and Sal see the Giants defensive stalwart, Quantrell Bishop (played by newcomer Jonathan Hamm), pumping gas into his massive SUV at a station across the street. The schlep-happy duo gawp and fidget, then decide, as though it’s entirely rational, to tail him, tracking the star athlete for hours, through the streets of Staten Island to Manhattan, and, finally, an expensive strip club. The consequences are violent; and the film gets darker, more emotionally taut, and sorrowful. An increasingly ashen Paul seemingly gets pudgier as well, as though he’s scarfing gallons of Carvel ice cream to insulate himself from the nagging dilemma of a fan’s reluctance to help with a police investigation. In a similar deflecting mechanism, Paul becomes obsessed with another regular late-night caller, a trash-talking Eagles fan named “Philadelphia Phil” (Michael Rappaport), whose disembodied taunts fittingly represent the odious element of the Eagles fan base which pelted Santa Claus with snowballs and cheered as Michael Irvin lay motionless on the Veterans Stadium turf.
In his debut film, Siegel balances the caustic with pungent humor. He’s assisted by cinematographer Michael Simmonds, who is Ramin Bahrani’s cinematographer of choice (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop,” “Goodbye Solo”) and shot the documentary “The Order of Myths” with insightful behind-the-scenes images of Mobile, Alabama’s segregated Mardi Gras festivities. Like a documentary, his camera appears to be capturing events as they unfold in “Big Fan,” such as when Paul and Sal saunter through the boisterous tailgating at Giants Stadium. Many of these realistic scenes are filled with clever images, such as the unconventional way the guys watch the Giants’ home games, or when the screen focuses on a poster above Paul’s bed and the camera lingers over Bishop’s chiseled physique. Siegel also made a wise choice choosing Oswalt to play Paul, even though his most substantive film role previously was as the voice of Remy in “Ratatouille.” Like Richard Pryor in Paul Schrader’s 1978 union drama, “Blue Collar,” Oswalt proves decisively that he’s a comedian who can deliver a strong, believable performance that’s dramatic at its core. When Siegel provides the film with a great twist in the final reel, Oswalt delivers the line “It’s going to be a great year” with sly, measured nuance. (Coincidentally, Oswalt played second banana to Kevin James for nine seasons on CBS’ “The King of Queens.” Earlier this year, James starred in “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” his own comedy about a marginal man living at home; it’s a bad film and a tired performance, with both the movie and his portrayal now made even worse by comparison.)
If PBS doesn’t want to gamble on feature films right away, perhaps they can start with smaller aspirations, such as a sitcom befitting the network. Here’s the concept: Through a fluke in an eminent family’s will, a far-removed cousin (Oswalt) becomes the manager of a New York City bakery where all of the bakers are Nobel laureates. Side-splitting infinitives of humor ensue as the flummoxed Oswalt has to rein in the likes of Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka. To boost ratings during sweeps week, eminent scholars will make guest appearances on “Nobel Pies”; Stephen Hawking’s catch phrase “Flour Power” will become a purified water cooler sensation. Plainly, the nosy neighbor would be played by Meshach Taylor