Written & Directed by Robert Siegel
Interesting that we are coming off a few formulaic football movies with nothing really new to offer to the genre. No new ideas, no new stories, just recycled ones. Interesting because with Big Fan we get something completely fresh and new that football movies haven’t really ever seen before: the fan movie. Sports are important to so many people, and sports are successful because of those people: the fans. There is a whole industry out there covering sports for the entertainment of the fans. ESPN, sports talk radio, websites galore; all for the consumption by fans. Fans come in all shapes and sizes, and in varying degrees. Casual fans, fair weather fans, psycho fans, super fans. Come one and come all. It’s what the game is all about. So Big Fan‘s perspective is not only unique, but it’s an important element to telling the story of sports.
Paul (Patton Oswalt) is a bit of a “loser”. He’s a middle aged man who lives at home with his mother, working nights as a parking garage attendant in New York City, and calling into sports talk radio to talk about his beloved New York Giants. He and his friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) are super fans, driving to the stadium every week to watch the game in the parking lot (presumably because tickets are too expensive). They live for the Giants, and specifically Paul’s favorite player Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), the team’s great pass rusher. But one night, when Paul and Sal spot Bishop, they decide to follow him to a club, where they muster up the courage to go up to him and express their fanaticism, but the night does not quite end how they would have predicted, causing Paul’s world to spiral out of control.
The nasty reality of sports is that there are crazy fans. Paul might not qualify, even though he takes it a little too far, but you do hear of fans of Team A beating up fans of Team B. Grown men taking things way too far for a sport that to many people doesn’t mean that much. The vast majority of fans fall somewhere in the middle: devout followers who can shrug off a bad loss or unfortunate turn. But what about the other side? Those who take it so seriously that it threatens their very livelihood and existence? Worshipping the team and players, entire lives controlled by the result of a child’s game. For Paul, perhaps he is happy in his current existence, but perhaps his fandom is also toxic, not only to him but to others.
What Big Fan explores is not only the angle from Paul’s perspective, but also from Quantrell’s. What is it like to be a professional athlete where grown men follow you around town? His response to this is at once both grotesque and horrible, but in a strange way understandable, especially when you take a moment to consider that Paul might be just one of many who exhibit this sort of fanaticism. In addition to these explorations of fan-to-player and fan-to-team relationships, the film also brings in a third: fan-to-fan. When Paul interacts with Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport) over the phone, it’s all fun and games, but as the film comes to a crescendo of Paul’s spiral, we get the face-to-face version in what is the most tense and troubling sequence in the film.
I don’t want to spoil the ending, but writer/director Robert Siegel explores these depths through the character of Paul and through this we discover the toxicity of fandom. We’ve seen this thread expand in recent years, especially in movies and pop culture, through disgusting and morally bankrupt tirads from internet trolls. It’s a problem in every entertainment industry. While Siegel’s film may be brief, it is exacting and contains a singular focus on a pervasive issue throughout sports. But he does so in a very delicate and careful way, sure to presents all sides with a fair shake, a fair perspective. Sometimes what starts as an innocent passion morphs into a dangerous and worrisome obsession.