The film stars funny man Patton Oswalt and elicits its fair share of laughs, but midway through Big Fan’s brief running time, you may just have to remind yourself you’re watching a comedy. Indeed, for its final half hour, the film is so unsparingly bleak, its view of human nature so debased, that you might find yourself thinking you wandered into the latest debauched epic from career-misanthropes Ulrich Seidl or Lars von Trier. (Really!) It’s all the more surprising, then, that Big Fan is the directorial debut of Robert Siegel, the man who wrote last year's strong but also slightly saccharine The Wrestler
Luckily, there’s nothing remotely cloying about Big Fan. Indeed, it’s because of Siegel’s willingness to take the film to some very dark places that it succeeds. Oswalt (whose everyman looks and soft, sad face are perfectly suited to the role) plays Paul Aufiero, a schlubby, 30-something parking garage attendant and perennial bachelor who still lives at home in Staten Island. Paul's entire existence revolves around his all-consuming love for the New York Giants, who he defends nightly on the sports radio shows he compulsively calls into. One night, Paul and best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) encounter Giants linebacker Quantrell Bishop and decide to discretely follow him. When Paul at last works up the nerve to talk to his hero, however, things go horribly wrong and, following a misunderstanding, our hero endures such a brutal beating at the hands of his idol that he winds up in the hospital. Despite pressure from his family and the police, Paul refuses to press charges, clinging desperately to his unwavering love for the Giants while gradually being driven to breaking point.
Siegel skillfully balances his black comedy, using observational humor (the funniest scenes involve Paul bickering with his mother about, alternately, his masturbation habits and her propensity for hoarding complimentary packets of sweet and sour sauce) to offset the film’s dark subject matter. He does make a few rookie mistakes — the film is certainly over-edited (a phone conversation between Paul and Sal contains nearly as many cuts as it does lines of dialogue), and the broad Staten Island stereotypes that comprise Paul’s family seem unnecessarily mean-spirited. Fortunately, however, Siegel more than makes up for these missteps by building his film towards a deeply unsettling, pitch-perfect climax.
Indeed, for its first half, Big Fan functions mostly as an absorbing character study, an investigation of an obsessed superfan’s warped psychology. As it nears its final act, however, Siegel takes the film in an increasingly disturbing direction. Without revealing too much, I’ll say that in the last scene of the film, the director effectively manages to turn an ordinary sports bar — pervasive site of American male bonding rituals — into a frightening, uncomfortably claustrophic vision of hell, laying bare the pent-up aggression and casual homophobia that underpins macho posturing. It’s a disheartening vision of American masculinity, a damning critique of obsessive fan culture, and this is what gives the movie a lasting, visceral impact. All that -- and, of course, the laughs -- make Big Fan more than worth the price of admission.