Don’t let the premise of “Big Fan” mislead you. Writer-director Robert D. Siegel’s 2009 Sundance-approved dramedy indeed examines the fall-out of a hematoma-induced encounter between New York Giants fan Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) and his favorite player Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), but it’s not a football film. It’s not even a sports film. “Big Fan” is more accurately romantic drama about loyalty and unconditional love that elects a Giants fanatic as its messenger.
Paul divides the hours of his waking life working as a parking deck attendant for the Staten Island Presbyterian Medical Center, supporting his NFL team, and calling a sports radio show to spar with Eagles fan Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport). Paul and his friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) can’t afford (or choose not to afford) stadium seats — they simply partake in tailgating activities and then watch the game on a small TV (powered by Paul’s car battery) in the parking lot of Giants Stadium. Maintaining these routines is good enough for them, though Paul’s family would beg to differ. He lives with his mom (Marcia Jean Kurtz) and has no interest in settling down like his brother Jeff (Gino Cafarelli).
Far from coming across as pitiful or pathetic, Paul is someone who is satisfied with the content and pacing of his existence. This status quo receives a serious jolt when Paul and Sal happen across Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) late one night. The two Giants fans decide to follow Bishop from a gas station in Staten Island to an adults-only club in Manhattan. Attempts to convey sentiments of adoration and admiration ultimately backfire as Paul becomes an unwitting punching bag for Bishop. This incident, and what it would mean for the future of Paul’s beloved football player and team, is the central theme of Siegel’s film.
A straightforward reading would focus on the media-saturated (and often exaggerated) controversies that can sprout up around misbehaving (off-field violence, driving under the influence) or tactless (speak too freely to the press) football players. Although a substantial portion of “Big Fan” pursues this avenue (and makes a reference to Billy Wilder’s 1966 film “The Fortune Cookie” in the process), the film doesn’t take an ideologically specific stance on whether or not skilled, professional athletes should be above the law or deserve unlimited forgiveness and compassion.
Siegel, who also wrote the critically acclaimed “The Wrestler” (2008), applies a comparable tone to “Big Fan.” The degree to which it succeeds as a character study lies in how readily the viewer can believe in or identify with Paul’s devotion to the gridiron game. Furthermore, the extent to which his passion is relatable and convincing rests in the ending (which is much less ambiguous than that of “The Wrestler”). The lengths that Paul goes to in order to demonstrate his love for the Giants might be over-the-top, but his intensity is sincere and strangely heartwarming.