We are in the season of the Super Bowl, that most sacred, important and American of events. The game itself — and the media frenzy that surrounds it — is a celebration of football, of course, but it’s also a celebration of fandom. Without the tens of millions of people deeply, unhealthily invested in the conflict between warring groups of muscle-bound, sweaty men immersed in homoerotic clinches, the Super Bowl would not be such a massive cultural event. Accordingly, there will be lots of commercials depicting football super-fandom as a harmless pastime and a lovable eccentricity. In fact, sports are so central to our conception of manhood that to be apathetic about them is itself considered a weird quirk.
Writer-director Robert Siegel’s 2009 dark comedy Big Fan, though, is about football fandom as anything but a mere hobby. It’s a pathology, an obsession, and a psychodrama; it operates as escapism, as performance, as dark comedy, and as masochism.
Big Fan is a deeply personal film for me because I had the honor of working alongside Rob for a number of years at the Onion, where he was an editor on the comedy side and I was the head writer for its entertainment section. I’m proud to consider Rob and some of the other folks involved in the film (co-star Joe Garden, associate producer Mike Loew) friends, and star Patton Oswalt has been a great supporter of me throughout my career.
But it’s also deeply personal for me because when I was a child and adolescent, I was a lot like its lead character, Paul Aufiero, played in an uncompromising, revelatory performance by Oswalt. Like Aufiero, I was a grubby outsider who found an invaluable, life-affirming escape by living vicariously through the heroics of my favorite athletes. There was once a time when I thought nothing of waiting in line for five hours to get my favorite athletes to look up briefly at me and scribble their names on a photograph or baseball. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of leaving a Milwaukee Brewers game as a seven-year-old weeping — not just crying, but sobbing with my whole body, heaving with despair — because they had lost.
“Paul willingly goes without many of the things society considers essential to being a functional adult. “
I don’t regret my early sports obsession because in the midst of a deeply unhappy childhood, being a fan provided me with a sense of identity and purpose, as well as many of my happiest moments. I didn’t stop being a super-fan after I went to college; I just shifted my focus from sports to movies, music, television, comedy, and podcasts. I went from being obsessed with what Paul Aufiero was obsessed with to being obsessed with the things the actor and comedian playing him is.
The movie begins with Aufiero at his job as an attendant in a fluorescent-lit parking garage that doubles as a sort of Purgatory, doing the kind of work a lazy, poorly constructed robot could perform just as easily. A rat races across the frame as Paul sits inside his literal and metaphorical box; even vermin are eager to flee this awful place, but Paul really doesn’t seem to mind it too much.
No, the parking garage job suits Paul just fine because it allows him to focus on what’s really important in his life: the New York Giants. Paul’s Giants poster-festooned room is a testament to his perpetual pre-adolescent state. He willingly goes without many of the things society considers essential to being a functional adult. He inhabits a world without sex (but plenty of sad masturbation), without romance, without meaningful work with any chance of advancement, and without children (or even the vague chance that he will someday reproduce). He doesn’t even have to pay for rent or food because he lives with a mother who makes no secret of her wish that Paul would move out and be more like his brother, a nouveau-riche lawyer with a tacky, enormously well-endowed trophy wife.
Though Paul does not appear to be conventionally religious, his love of the Giants represents an intense faith, every bit as fierce and all-consuming as the most evangelical forms of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Scientology, or any other belief system. Given the religious overtones of both Big Fan and Siegel’s script for The Wrestler, it does not seem coincidental that both Paul’s given name and Mark, the fake name he chooses late in the film, are also the names of Christian apostles.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Paul’s existence is that he appears to be happy, or at least that he seems to have convinced himself that he’s happy. All of his emotional needs are met by the Giants, who offer him a sense of belonging, a sense of community, and the opportunity to live vicariously through the heroics of famous athletes. The team is also the linchpin of his relationship with what appears to be his only friend, Sal, a fellow superfan played by the great Kevin Corrigan with puppy dog sweetness and guileless sincerity.
Thanks to his passion for the Giants, Paul is a regular on a sports radio show, for which he writes, rehearses, and delivers boastful monologues about the glory of the New York Giants and the hopelessness of their hated rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles. Sal has such a tiny but oddly content little life that he looks up to Paul for this, and the radio show treats him with a level of respect otherwise lacking in his life from everyone other than Sal. He’s even established a rivalry with an especially obnoxious Eagles fan and fellow sports radio semi-celebrity nicknamed Philadelphia Phil, played by Michael Rapaport in a gloriously abrasive performance that makes an indelible impact even before his character appears onscreen.
“The kind of religious faith Paul has in the Giants is not rational.”
The Giants give Paul something to look forward to — something to live for — and the visceral excitement of being deeply invested in the outcome of every contest. Accordingly, Paul and Sal make a holy pilgrimage to Giants stadium for every home game, when they are able to fit in in a way they wouldn’t anywhere else. It’s a place where everyone wears the same jerseys, sports the same colors, and feverishly pursues the same goal: rooting their team to victory. It’s Paul and Sal’s nirvana, their heaven, but even here they are on the outside looking in, since they can’t afford tickets to the game and cheer for their Giants while watching a portable television in the stadium parking lot.
Then one auspicious and awful evening these awkward men spot their favorite player, Quantrell Bishop (boxer and mixed martial artist Jonathan Hamm) outside of the stadium. In a frenzy of misguided excitement, they follow him and his entourage first to the Stapleton neighborhood of Staten Island and then to an upscale strip club, where they couldn’t be more out of place if they were dressed as rodeo clowns.
Paul and Sal desperately want to impress Quantrell, to hang out with him and get his autograph. Quantrell, however, is intent on getting drunk and laid and seems understandably annoyed by the strangers’ creepy attempts to win his favor, like following him into the bathroom, staring at him from a distance, and sending him a drink, which he declines. When Paul and Sal finally muster up the ill-advised courage to approach their hero, and Paul mentions how he stopped in Stapleton before hitting the club, a drunk and paranoid Quantrell snaps and beats Paul so hard that he loses consciousness and wakes up days later in a hospital bed.
The supremely passive Paul is now forced to make a difficult decision. Does he betray his fandom for the most legitimate of reasons (the dude he reveres as a hero nearly beat him to death) and press charges against his attacker, possibly winning a small fortune in damages and sending the linebacker to jail in the process? Or does he pursue the path of the martyr and keep his mouth shut so that the team that is his only reason for living can keep Quantrell and remain as competitive as possible?
If Paul were a casual fan, the choice would be clear. Then again, if he were a casual fan, he wouldn’t have pursued the course that led to him getting beaten senseless by his hero in the first place. He’d press charges and file a lawsuit and very likely become extremely wealthy. But the kind of religious faith Paul has in the Giants is not rational. It’s not logical. It is a form of devotion that veers into masochism. For Paul, the success of the Giants and Quantrell’s career are more important than his health, more important than the possible brain damage he suffered during the attack, and more important than his financial future. They are everything, and everything he has in life (which may seem a pittance to us but represents his entire universe) is a product of his fandom.
“The film is about fandom as martyrdom; in the end, Paul doesn’t just prove himself to be a big fan, but the biggest fan.”
It’s a testament to the film’s richness, depth, and ambiguity that my response to Paul’s decision not to press charges shifted each time I watched the film (I’ve seen it three times). Rewatching it, Paul’s choice makes more and more sense. His rationale was that his furious beat-down was simply the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding. That’s an over-simplification, but the truth is that Paul and Sal did cross a number of lines that should not have been crossed.
At first glance, it’s tough to delineate between fans who are obsessive and creepy but fundamentally harmless, like Paul and Sal, and the kinds of fans who are obsessive, creepy, and dangerous. After all, John Lennon famously signed an album for Mark David Chapman before Chapman killed him. The line between fan and stalker can be blurry, and Paul was right in recognizing that he had gone too far, and that while he certainly did not deserve to be nearly killed for his transgression, he was not entirely blameless either. And if Quantrell suspects that Paul is the kind of guy who might freak out and pull a gun on somebody, he’s not exactly wrong about that either.
Paul chooses to hide the truth of his encounter, telling the sports talk show he calls into regularly that no one knows what happened that night at the strip club, so no one can pass judgment on Quantrell. When Philadelphia Phil outs Paul’s identity as the man Quantrell beat up, he freaks out. Since Philadelphia Phil has invited Paul to switch sides, Paul goes to Philadelphia and, in a riveting scene, covers his face with green and white paint. The pain on his wonderfully expressive face is palpable, as if putting on the colors of the opposing team hurts every bit as much as having his head smashed by Quantrell. This leads to a thrilling climax where Paul’s buried rage finally explodes in a dramatic but largely ceremonial act of aggression against a world whose brutal indifference towards him he finally comes to understand.
Like the best movies of the genre in the 1970s, Big Fan uses sports as a prism to explore the complexities of human behavior. I think of it less as a football movie and more as a powerful allegory for spiritual belief. It’s about a football fan, but it could just as easily be about a religious zealot, a music cultist, or a political die-hard who is confronted with something that, by all rights, shouldn’t just challenge their faith but destroy it. How do you carry on when the institution or person to whom you’ve devoted your life doesn’t just disappoint you, but actively tries to destroy you? How do you reconcile that faith with the abuse you’ve endured? For Paul, it’s more palatable to deny or minimize his own suffering than to acknowledge, to himself and to the world, that what he’d believed in most had betrayed him. The film is about fandom as martyrdom; in the end, Paul doesn’t just prove himself to be a big fan, but the biggest fan. Paul transcends mere devotion and becomes Christ-like in his suffering. He all but dies for one New York Giant’s sins and finds the grace to forgive him and to hold on to his fragile sense of self, a sense of self rooted in his deep spiritual commitment to the team, his team.
So while Big Fan is a particularly appropriate movie to watch during the media and cultural frenzy of the Super Bowl, it’s so much more than a mere sports movie. This may be the best time to catch up with this criminally underseen, small-scale gem, but it is ultimately a film for all seasons, and it is eminently rewatchable for all manner of surprisingly weighty, substantive and cerebral reasons.
Original Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 86 percent
Follow Nathan Rabin on Twitter: @NathanRabin