"Longtime listener, first-time caller; love the show." If you've spent any time listening to sports talk radio (call-in), those words are as familiar as the pledge of allegiance, the code lingo of steadfast fans who repeat slams, inside jokes and catchphrases like mantras. These guys worship at the altar of sports; it's where the sports jocks are icons, and talk-show hosts are gurus who lead the pathway to touchdown nirvana.
In Big Fan, Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) is the most devoted of secular zealots, a schlubby mid-30s superfan who lives with his nagging mom, and spends his workdays in a cramped Staten Island tollbooth scribbling the intricate rants he phones in nightly to the Sports Dawg radio show.
A total zero in the real world, on-air Paul is an anonymous minor star, carrying out the Giants vs. Eagles blood feud with his archrival, the hateful "Philly Phil" (Michael Rapaport).
Too broke to afford season tickets, he hangs in the stadium parking lot watching games on a portable TV with his loser blood-brother Sal (the underrated Kevin Corrigan).
Paul's beloved G-men are crushing the competition, thanks largely to defensive stud Quantrell Bishop. So beloved, in fact, that Paul follows his coked-up idol to a Manhattan strip club, and gets a severe beating for his trouble.
When he wakes up days later, Paul finds everyone on his ass to go after his hero — from the press to a jaded cop (Detroit-born Matt Servitto) to his ambulance-chasing lawyer brother, who wants to soak the star for millions of dollars.
Director Siegel penned The Wrestler, and again he finds the scruffy underbelly of the sports world a rich universe for observation and exploitation. Here, instead of a has-been attempting to reclaim glory we have a never-was who has placed his passion on such a lofty pedestal he can't even see the ugly reality, even when it (literally) punches him in the face. The movie's a throwback to Scorsese's paranoid classics such as Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, but it doesn't hold its central figure in as much contempt.
Paul is delusional, but unlike De Niro's Rupert Pupkin he doesn't need to be something more — he sees the outside world, the relationships and responsibilities, as unacceptable hassles. He has the smarts and piety of Ignatius J. Reilly — believing in the purity of his worship, happy with his tiny lonely life, wrapped snug in his NFL sheets.
For a first dramatic performance, comedian Oswalt delivers a subtle, superb performance, smashing ahead as fiercely as a fullback headed for the end zone.
In fact, Oswalt is so awesome, his character so well-drawn and insightful, you forgive the shallow plot points. Paul, though meticulous, isn't all that funny or compelling a caller. And the loss of a linebacker, even a dominant one, probably wouldn't cause a total team collapse.
Also, while Philly Fans are notoriously tough, (they once booed Santa Claus!) they're just as prone to turn the hate on themselves.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 25-26, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 27. It also screens at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 2-3, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 4. Call 313-833-3237.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].