Baseball fan Stephen Ruiz calls into 10YA to talk about the pitfalls of sports culture reflected in the film Big Fan.
When Big Fan was released in 2009, I couldn’t wait to see it. It was one of those rare movies that I was all in for before I learned anything about it. Patton Oswalt had been one of my favorite comedians for over a decade. Writer-director Robert D. Siegel was the brains behind The Onion, a website where I spent approximately 80% of my working hours. He also wrote the screenplay for The Wrestler, the Mickey Rourke revival from the previous year which I adored. Since I fancied myself an aficionado of quality films, Big Fan’s small budget, minimalist style, and obscurity made it another worthy addition to my hipster file.
My expectations for Big Fan were colored entirely by its comedy foundations. I assumed Siegel and Oswalt would be having a lot of fun at the expense of the stereotypical toxic football fan. As a lifelong baseball fan with a disdain for the gargantuan popularity of football, I couldn’t have been more eager.
The movie was heavier and more dour than I was prepared for, but it perfectly skewered the football bro-dawgs whom I loathed. Patton Oswalt’s portrayal of Paul Aufiero checked every box on the douchefan scavenger hunt. When my first viewing ended ten years ago, I remember loving what I had just seen. I never reflected on the filmmakers’ aims for the film, because I was so blinded by what I wanted to see—a sermon on the sins of That Guy. I enjoyed it, to be sure, but I never actually saw the movie that Robert Siegel crafted.
In the decade that passed since I last watched Big Fan, I’ve only made minor strides in maturity, but I’ve made greater strides in compassion. In addition to teaching nearly a thousand young people over that time, I’ve also had a child of my own. I’ll spare you all the cliché rigamarole about how having a child changes you in profound ways. Suffice it to say that it’s all true.
Watching the movie from that new perspective was infinitely more poignant and affecting. On any level beyond the superficial, the film was substantially different from the one I remember. Big Fan isn’t an exercise in the unprovoked bullying of a pathetic ne’er-do-well who refuses to defend himself. Big Fan paints a tragic portrait of failure, partly the failures of Paul Aufiero, but mostly the failure of anyone who allowed him to carry his adolescence into his 30s.
The first shot of the movie begins what eventually becomes a series of new nadirs for Paul. When we first see the protagonist, he is unenthusiastically manning a toll booth in a parking garage while listening to the local sports talk radio station. Paul handles a couple of customers with all the ambivalence one might expect from a man in his thirties tied to a meaningless job. We then discover that between customers, Paul is scripting his talking points for his upcoming call to the Sports Dogg.
Our descent into Paul’s life continues as we see him at home calling into the radio show. When the producer answers, it’s clear that “Paul from Staten Island” is a regular caller and valuable contributor to the show. He unleashes a passionately scripted and thoroughly rehearsed rant in support of his beloved New York Giants. Paul’s delivery is so polished that not even his mother banging on the wall to beg for quiet can derail him. Many of his remarks are directed at his nemesis, die-hard Eagles fan Philadelphia Phil. When Paul hangs up, he’s beaming with the pride of a man who has vanquished all of his demons and set the world right. This pride is made all the more tragic during the post-rant post-mortem call with his best friend Sal, during which Sal praises Paul for his fealty to the Giants and his ability so speak so eloquently off the cuff.
Sal is both Paul’s best friend and the most crippling influence in his life. In his acceptance and praise for all of Paul’s life choices, he assures that Paul will never strive to be more than a parking garage attendant who lives with his mother and serves no god other than the New York Giants.
Most of Paul’s love for the Giants is channeled specifically toward Quantrell Bishop, the Giants’ star linebacker. As luck, or the lack thereof, would have it, Paul and Sal happen upon Bishop and his entourage and naively decide to follow them to a drug deal, which they fail to recognize, and a strip club in Manhattan.
After their well-laid plan of buying a mimosa for Bishop fails, they sheepishly skulk to his table and introduce themselves. After unwittingly admitting to bearing witness to Quantrell and Friends taking a detour to buy drugs, Paul is severely beaten.
Upon waking up in the hospital days later, his first words are not an inquiry regarding his health or an expression of gratitude to his loved ones surrounding his bed. Upon learning how long he has been unconscious, he demands to know the results of the last Giants game and the specifics of Bishop’s individual effort. It is perhaps the saddest film moment you’ve never seen. Having just cheated death, a man is surrounded by people with earnest concern for his health. He responds by setting his mind to a group of men who, at best, are ignorant of his existence and, at worst, almost killed him.
Predictably, the Giants’ season crumbles with their biggest defensive weapon waylaid by his suspension and ensuing rust. At no point does Paul pay any mind to his physical health or the restitution to which he is entitled. Instead, he is wracked with guilt for his role in tarnishing the legacy of Quantrell Bishop and ruining the Giants’ playoff chances.
Paul’s guilt harbors resentment which inspires him to lash out against anyone with the audacity to look out for his interests—his brother for filing a civil suit against Bishop, his mother for entreating him to demand more of himself, the detective for encouraging him to press charges, even Sal for looking out for his health.
The civil suit brings Paul’s greatest nightmares to reality. Philadelphia Phil discovers that Paul from Staten Island and Bishop’s victim are one and the same and outs him on the Sports Dogg show, his last remaining refuge. When Paul calls in to retaliate, his mother gets on the line and humiliates him, triggering a profane response which causes the Sports Dogg to end the call.
In a last-ditch effort to save face, Paul disguises himself as an Eagles fan and endeavors to vanquish his foe, Philadelphia Phil, once and for all. After locating him and ingratiating himself to Phil with his anti-Giant rhetoric, Paul follows Phil to the bathroom and brandishes a pistol, unloading two full magazines onto Phil.
In the epilogue, we see Sal visiting Paul in prison where they speak of the upcoming Giants season and their assessment of their opponents’ weaknesses. After a bullish prediction of the season to come, Paul declares that “it’s going to be a great year.”
Whether or not you follow sports or care about football, you probably know someone just like Paul. If you don’t, go to a sports bar on a Sunday afternoon during the NFL season. You will easily identify five people who simply won’t be okay if the guys wearing the correct laundry don’t prevail.
What Robert D. Siegel and Patton Oswalt have done is brilliant. They crafted a character who, while virtually unsympathetic, elicits sympathy. Big Fan is an eerily accurate representation of what can happen to people, especially men, when their development is left to chance. The hollow, unconditional worship of sports culture is no match for thoughtful parenting or regular doses of tough love. Siegel and Oswalt have crafted a striking cautionary tale of the consequences of neglecting our responsibilities to one another.
— Stephen Ruiz