Notes from Underground


"Big Fan"

White boys, black gods



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"Big Fan" may well be the bleakest comedy I've ever seen.

Please note that I write "bleakest," not "blackest," though the movie — which stars comic actor Patton Oswalt and was written and directed by Robert Siegel, former editor-in-chief of the legendary humor magazine The Onion — is indeed quite black as well. But what resonates with the viewer after it is over isn't so much a sense of thematic darkness as a sheer, unshakeable conviction of hopelessness. You find yourself shaking your head sadly, as lingering chuckles catch in your throat. The moral of the story seems to be that some people just never learn. In spite of having promise and intellectual potential, they keep making the same mistakes, taking on all the wrong values, committing themselves passionately to the most ridiculously inane causes, and wasting their valuable time — indeed, nearly the entirety of their lives — on matters that signify nothing, or less than nothing.

"Big Fan" obliges us to spend an hour and a half with one such person — a short, tubby New York parking-lot attendant named Paul Aufiero (played by Oswalt). Though in his mid to late 30s, Paul still lives with his mom, a horribly haggish shrew who despises him and is never afraid to tell him so. Whether Paul's "failure to launch" results from financial or psychological factors, or some combination of the two, isn't entirely clear, though we find out early on that he seems quite content to be where he's at. When his warehouse club franchise-owning brother-in-law asks whether he'd like to join him in what he promises will be a lucrative investment, Paul takes umbrage. It isn't that the offer sounds shady (though it might well be); instead, its proffering suggests he'd rather being doing something more ambitious with his life. "I have a job!" he testily declares, causing an unnecessary scene at his nephew's birthday party in the process.

Paul's vocation may be manning the booth of a generic Manhattan parking garage, but his perceived job is something entirely different. Paul is a rabid fan of the New York Giants who lives and dies with every win and loss. During his shift, between taking people's tickets, handing them their change, and pushing the button that raises the gate, Paul remains glued to sports talk radio; when he gets a free moment, he scribbles notes on a pad, carefully editing his thoughts with what he believes to be clever one-liners about the awesomeness of his team and the crappiness of his team's main rival, the Philadelphia Eagles. Later, when at home, our hero calls a particular show under the semi-pseudonym of "Paul in Staten Island," and verbally unleashes his written compositions, which he takes pains to deliver as if they were spontaneously conceived, rather than obsessively edited and rehearsed. It is the one time when Paul gets to be a star; the host commends him for his "passion" and for "always bringin' it hard."

Paul is idolized by his best friend, a dim-witted, dull-eyed layabout named Sal (Kevin Corrigan). Together this dynamic duo regularly attend Giants home games, or at least they get close: they hang out in the parking lot of the Meadowlands stadium and watch the game on Sal's tiny portable TV. After a win, they are in heaven; following a loss, they are despondent beyond consolation, though Sal always tries to make optimistic prognostications for next week's game while Paul just stares ahead sullenly.

Paul's room — one presumes that it's the same room he's had all his life — is of course decked out with Giants memorabilia. A life-sized poster of star linebacker Quantrell Bishop (a fictional character, NFL non-fans please note) looms over his bed, its shirtless figure staring down at Paul beneficently through a dreadlocked mane of hair, muscles flexing heroically. Bishop may be his name, but the man is more like God to Paul — he can do no wrong, on or off the field. Needless to say, Paul also owns an authentic Quantrell Bishop jersey, with the player's number and name on the back. Like many NFL fans, he dreams of being his hero. And one fateful night, while throwing down greasy pizza at a neighborhood joint, Paul and Sal are pinching themselves, because there he is, in the flesh: the one and only Quantrell Bishop (played by the Jonathan Hamm who is not on "Mad Men"), leaning against a black SUV and talking on his cell phone at the gas station across the street.

Naturally, they pile into Paul's car and follow Bishop and his entourage, ecstatic at the notion of meeting their idol. The two are a bit perplexed when the black van veers into a seedy section of Stapleton, near the Staten Island waterfront, and someone jumps out and runs into a house, emerging moments later with some kind of stash. They wait in their car, then continue tailing Bishop's vehicle until it parks outside a Manhattan strip club. Once inside, the pair get a table, buy ludicrously expensive drinks, turn down a lap-dance offer, and try to summon up the cajones to introduce themselves to the godlike Bishop.

Boy-men that they are, Paul and Sal have no clue that they've either done or witnessed anything inappropriate. So when Paul, fortified with liquid courage, actually walks over to the gridiron legend, he tells him that they saw him in Staten Island and followed him to Stapleton. Bishop, in a drug-addled haze, immediately becomes suspicious and paranoid about having been shadowed. To Paul's bewilderment, the hulking jock suddenly turns explosively angry; before Paul even knows what's happened, he's been knocked to the floor, getting punched and kicked viciously by his idol.

After regaining consciousness in a hospital room, in traction with numerous bruises and broken bones, Paul's character assumes a certain tragic, Job-like aspect; his God has turned against him, and he doesn't understand why. But unlike Job, Paul has no desire to hold his deity responsible for his misery. Indeed, despite the imploring of his sleazy lawyer brother, Jeff, Paul refuses to press charges against Bishop; he tells a police investigator that he doesn't remember the event and claims the entire thing was just a "misunderstanding," in which nobody really did anything wrong.

But in spite of Paul's best efforts to protect the Giants superstar, Bishop gets suspended indefinitely and the team slides into a horrific late-season slump. Around this time, Paul's nemesis, a sports talk show caller and Eagles fan named "Philadelphia Phil," outs "Paul from Staten Island" as the guy who got his ass kicked by his icon. Paul's fantasy has turned into a guilt-filled nightmare: the Eagles have caught the Giants in the standings, and his idol's career and good name are threatened ... all because of him!

In the film's finale, Paul seeks vengeance, not against the thuggish lout Quantrell Bishop who beat him within an inch of his life, but rather against the obnoxious but harmless Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rappaport), a man who in most ways seems a carbon copy of Paul, and just happens to be an Eagles fan rather than a Giants fan. In a climax both hilarious and unsettling, Paul dons the uniform of the "enemy" (a Donovan McNabb Eagles jersey), drives to Philly, and enters the nearest sports bar, looking for Phil. Using some clever detection skills, he actually finds the guy, and pretends to befriend him. The Eagles are beating the Giants on Monday Night Football to knock them out of the playoffs; jubilant Philadelphians are chanting "Giants suck!" and Paul, though dying inside, keeps his cool, even managing to force a grin when the drunken Phil makes one rude crack after another against his beloved team. Paul has painted his face green and white (the Eagles' team colors), an hommage to Martin Sheen's Captain Willard near the end of "Apocalypse Now," when he adorns his face with war paint before killing Martin Brando's Colonel Kurtz with a machete. I won't give away the shocking cathartic moment that ensues, or the twisty resolution, but suffice it to say that Paul's revenge is both sweet and ultimately toothless.

"Big Fan" is a powerfully honest look at an all-too-common specimen of modern-day white Western man, who is full of what W.B. Yeats called "passionate intensity" yet lacks any significant sense of rootedness in a meaningful and sustenance-giving tradition. Instead of dedicating himself to a transcendent faith and cleaving tightly to the wisdom of his ancestors, Paul Aufiero lives for nothing but his paltry appetite. He works a crap job, masturbates to Playboy magazine, obsessively "root-root-roots" for the home team, and generally sees no problem with being just the way he is. To be fair, Paul is not without some worthwhile qualities: he possesses heart, guts, and at least some degree of intelligence, but seemingly he has no intention ever to mature past the emotional state of a 12-year old.

Most strikingly, Paul — like many contemporary American Caucasian sports fans — is thoroughly deracinated, to the extent that he conceives himself as only a spectator in the game of life, one whose highest task is to cheer on athletic blacks such as Quantrell Bishop from the nosebleed section (or in Paul's case, the parking lot). Meanwhile, Paul's brother Jeff is the sort of man who presents his 7-year old son with a birthday cake that features a picture of gangsta rapper 50-Cent in the frosting. We see in such instances the increasing tendency among many whites to embrace and admire the trashiest and most objectionable aspects of contemporary black "thug" culture, even transmitting such dross and filth directly to their impressionable children. Paul is even willing to give up his own dignity and right to restitution so that his hero Bishop can walk free; some men in history have sacrificed nobly for good causes, but Paul sacrifices ignobly for a bad one.

Other comedies with dark subject matter have often taken a broad, somewhat farcical tone to lighten things up (think "Throw Mamma from the Train," "Death Becomes Her," or "Very Bad Things"), but first-time director Siegel plays things straight here. The very ordinariness and familiarity of the surroundings helps to drive home his movie's bleak themes with mordant incisiveness. As he did with his screenplay for "The Wrestler," Siegel lends a detailed authenticity to the culture he depicts; while his film mocks the excesses of sports fans, he is obviously intimately familiar with the world of sports fandom — one gathers that he is himself a fan, perhaps that he even passed through his own "Paul" phase.

"I can't tell you how sick I am," Paul tells us in the film's profound opening line. It is a fitting introduction to this character, and his world. By the time the credits roll, we're sick too.  Ω

November 10, 2011

Published in 2011 by WTM Enterprises.

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