"Put me in the last fifteen minutes of a picture and I don't care what happened before. I don't even care if I was in the rest of the damned thing - I'll take it in those minutes."
- Barabara Stanwyck
A great ending counts for a lot, maybe more than it logically should. Evaluating a film should rationally involve taking it in as a whole, beginning to end, and sizing up its strengths and weaknesses. But if we're being honest we would admit that a killer ending will have us forgiving a lot of flaws, while a weak one will make us overlook a story's high points.
Writer-director Robert Siegel's Big Fan has a beauty of an ending. It is especially effective because it arrives after it seems like he is losing control of his material, lurching from understated to over-the-top. Then, just when it feels like it is about to go totally off the rails, a series of realizations go click, click, click into place one after another, right up to the last perfect line. It's like watching a pilot bring a jumbo jet in for a baby-soft landing. It is so satisfying it elevates the whole story that proceeded it.
Big Fan is the story of New York Giants superfan Paul Aufiero. Watching and supporting the Giants make up the sum total of Paul's reasons to live. He is pushing forty, overweight, has no wife, no girlfriend, and no ambition. He watches the games in a lawn chair outside Giants stadium in thirty degree weather, shouting deep advice like, "Run the ball!" at a crummy TV hooked up to his car battery. Naturally, he lives with his mother and has one friend living the same hardcore fan lifestyle. Paul's day job working the tollbooth at a parking garage leaves him free to while away the time, composing diatribes to be recited when he calls into his talk radio sports shows and rants about the Giants into the wee morning hours.
One of the best things about Big Fan is that it understands the huge gap in the way the world sees Paul versus the way Paul sees himself. A healthy person would observe Paul with a mixture of horror and pity. His mother certainly does, and she keeps a running monologue on all the ways Paul is a complete failure, despairing mainly of his lack of a career or girlfriend, while throwing in any new lows he has recently reached. In Paul's mind, he is a man living the dream. The painfully stilted jumble of sports cliches he delivers to the call-in shows is poetry. Sitting in sub-freezing temperatures while sucking up car exhaust outside the stadium is a glorious exercise in religious devotion. The debasement is merely further proof the he has a commitment that lifts him above lesser fans. Paul would have something approaching perfect happiness if only the rest of the world could just mind their own business and leave him alone.
Paul's routine is disrupted one night when out killing time he spots his idol, Giants quarterback Quantrell Bishop, inexplicably in his neck of the woods.
"Maybe he's here to see the Wu Tang, " Paul wonders.
Paul unwisely decides to follow Bishop into the city, then after unwisely trailing him into a strip club, he makes the further error of approaching the (seemingly high) quarterback and lets it slip that he's been stalking him for hours. Misunderstandings escalate from there until Paul finds himself getting pummeled into a coma by his hero. When the ensuing criminal charges threaten to scuttle the remainder of Bishop's career, and the Giants's chances down with it, Paul's best interests are placed in direct conflict with those of his team.
Big Fan owes a lot of its success to its casting. Just as the Siegel-scripted The Wrestler ran up the score when Aronofsky insisted on Mickey Rourke as Randy the Ram, the casting of Patton Oswalt as Paul is a masterstroke. Nerdy obsessiveness is one of the themes of Oswalt's stand-up comedy and makes him a natural fit the same way it worked for him as the voice of Remy in Ratatouille. Praising the casting, by the way, does not in any way diminish Oswalt's work. He shows some real dramatic chops here. The energy so familiar from his stand-up is present, but the alertness is gone, replaced by obliviousness. Patton manages to portray a dull man without giving a dull performance. He understands that, in Paul's mind, the talk show rivalry between him and Eagles fan Philly Phil is packed with drama, of equal importance to the games themselves. It's a full performance, absent of vanity.
As strong as the lead performance is, Big Fan still finds room for some brief, effective supporting turns. Best of these is probably Marcia Jean Kurtz, veteran of such films as Dog Day Afternoon, who plays Paul's mom, striking just the right not of exasperation. She nags not because she's an overbearing women by nature, but because she is desperate to find some way to dent her son's impenetrable delusions. Also good are the always reliable Kevin Corrigan, as the only Giants fan pathetic enough to look up to Paul, and the invaluable Michael Rapaport, in a late-in-the-film cameo as Philly Phil, a more obnoxious breed of the same animal as Paul.
Robert Siegel is clearly influenced by the rough-edged character studies of the seventies, like Fat City or anything directed by Paul Schrader. Paul's rehearsing his talk show scripts to himself has unmistakable echoes of Travis Bickle. Even if Big Fan doesn't match the best of those for depth, it is still great at evoking the texture of Paul's shabby world like the shanty town communities that exist outside pro sports games, or the look of utter misery on Paul's face when he's forced to endure several Giant-less hours at a children's birthday party. My favorite character detail is the way Paul scoops two spoonfuls of sugar into his glass of coke. No man who sugars his coke has fully accepted the mantle of adulthood.
If Big Fan has a problem it is with its undercooked middle section. Once the stage has been set with the Quantrell Bishop incident, the film doesn't do much to build on it. I was dying for a second scene with Quantrell and Paul, or failing that, some additional twist of irony in a scenario so rich with possibility. Shouldn't the press be camped out on Paul's lawn? Wouldn't this story make Paul the most despised man in the world to Giants fans? I'm not begging for Siegel to pile plot contrivances onto his convincingly realistic world. It's just that I couldn't help feeling that opportunities for the story passed by unexplored. The filmmakers missed the chance to really push Paul - to see how deep his beliefs run, and find the limits of how far he can be pushed.
On the other hand, it might be the simple truth that Paul doesn't have any depths to explore.
Verdict: Big Fan is one of those overlooked indie films that seems like a hundred other gritty Sundance dramas until you actually watch it and see the exceptional care given to the filmmaking and performances. Then there's that ending. Any problems I had with the film faded in my memory by the time the credits started rolling. To have the final notes land with such grace is a rare thing. Siegel must have a gift for it since the last script that springs to mind with a similar flawless finish was his The Wrestler. I look forward to a third film by Siegel exploring the characters who exist on the fringes of organized sports, searching for secondhand glory. 8 out of 10