As a longtime listener, no-time caller of WFAN, New York’s nexus of sports-talk radio, I can’t help but find something mildly relatable about the deranged devotion of Paul Aufiero (an authentically schlubby Patton Oswalt), a 36-year-old Staten Island loser who habitually phones radio shows to blab about his beloved football Giants. Realism, though, is only partially sought by Big Fan, the directorial debut of The Wrestler scribe Robert D. Siegel, which fancifully imagines such sports chatterboxes as neo-Travis Bickles, dangerously unstable loners with skewed perspectives on themselves and the world.
Living with his mom, employed as a parking lot attendant, uncomfortable around his well-off ambulance-chaser brother and his enormously breasted wife, and friends only with Sal (Kevin Corrigan), who encourages his call-in addiction, Paul is a stunted-adolescent powder keg whose obsession with the G-Men—and, specifically, favorite player Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm)—is all-consuming. One night, he and Sal spy Quantrell at a gas station and decide to tail him to a Manhattan strip club, an excruciating vision of pathetic fandom that ends with Paul receiving a severe beating from his icon. While Siegel’s visual sense lacks imagination, as evidenced by his second-hand photocopying of The Wrestler‘s working-class landscapes as well as a late Wrestler/Dardennes behind-the-head tracking shot, Paul’s recurring fantasy image of Quantrell—shot like a glossy Under Armour commercial—sharply captures the menacing danger of hero worship.
Big Fan often feels stock, with Paul just the latest in a long line of delusional, volatile do-nothings. In its details, however, the film convincingly pinpoints how many ESPN-aholics define identity at least partially via team loyalty. Scripting his comments beforehand, Paul’s brief radio spots function as acts of performance, a means of interjecting himself into a drama to which he has no fundamental relationship. Faced with having to aid in the prosecution of Quantrell, which would effectively ruin the season and thus provide fodder for his call-in rival “Philadelphia Phil” (Michael Rapaport), Paul chooses fandom over himself. It’s a somewhat creaky plot twist, culminating in a psychotic public bathroom confrontation, and yet it nonetheless acutely illustrates how excessive sports fanaticism functions as a strain of insanity that, as posited by the “happy” coda, recommences with every new season.