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Siegel's "Big Fan" Deserves a Big Audience


Published December 11, 2009 at 1:35 p.m.

This year's celebrity blog postings offer one resounding conclusion: Sports, alcohol, sex and celebrity-dom do not mesh well. (They make for high ratings, though.)

Today it's Tiger Woods' harrowing sex faux pas (whoops!) that yielded a laundry list of personal apologies and a golf-clubbed SUV. Yesterday, QB Michael Vick was released from an 18-month stint in prison for his involvement in gambling, drug use and the "Bad Newz Kennels," an interstate dog-fighting ring.

Tomorrow, it could easily be a tête-à-tête between best friends A-Rod and Jeter over who's taken fewer steroids. One just can't predict the zany future of sports scandal and violence, on and off the field.

But what happens when this rage spell comes between fan and player? Between loyal subject and emperor? Things get more complicated; inner worlds crumble, the score changes, and lifelong loyalties are threatened. 

Robert Siegel's directorial debut Big Fan (2009) is an excellent playing ground for recreating the behind-the-scenes face-offs in the sports stratosphere. When self-declared "NY Giants' biggest fan" Paul Aufiero (played by chubster comedian Patton Oswalt) is beaten up by his favorite Giants player in a drunken strip-club exchange, Aufiero has his own blue-collar version of an existential crisis. Like Kierkegaard, he chooses to remain loyal to his faith and true colors (red and blue), refusing to press charges against the grizzly Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm). A blind faith only fans of American football can attest to.

Aufiero is, unfortunately, surrounded by nonbelievers. His mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz) finds him pathetic and "psychotic" — a loner 35-year-old parking lot attendant still living in her apartment on Staten Island.

His brother can't believe Paul won't tap the family's resources and sue: "I know you're a fan of this guy. But you gotta stop lookin' at him like some kind of hero, and start lookin' at him like some big black moron jackass asshole that gave you brain damage," says the lawyer brother, who's considered "the successful son of the family" because the outcome of his last case bought his wife's orange tan, white fur carpeting and fake Double-D breasts.

Paul is furious and humiliated, black-eyed and bruised. An easy rise to tabloid fame and fortune is not worth anything that could get Quantrell banned from the field and send the Giants on a losing streak. To avoid that outcome, Paul may have to humble himself before his toughest rival and clawing arch-nemesis on "Sports Dog's" radio talk show The Zone, Philadelphia Phil (a trash-talking Eagles die-hard, played perfectly by Michael Rapaport). Once Paul was a nightly caller and anonymous Giants guru who churned out diatribes that could silence any "cheese-steak-eating bozo" Philly fan. But he risks that rep for his team: a truly selfless act.

Siegel has proved his skill, both on paper and behind the camera, at exposing the underbelly of athletic extremism. The image of Mickey Rourke face to the locker-room floor and bloodied by staples and barbed wire comes to mind. The Wrestler's screenwriter chose to show the other side — the sidelines — in Big Fan. Perhaps the result was a less dynamic and glamorous story, but it's one equally raw and touching.

Unfortunately, the plot drags on, becoming a little heavy handed, as the shit seems to hit the Fan from all angles. Between the headaches, the daily Philadelphia Phil verbal beatings and the drone of his family's chastising, it's no wonder that Paul ends up with a gun. Siegel demonstrates that fandom comes with a tall price and a sympathy vote.

Siegel's camera work is gritty but not disreputable. The gems of this film are the actors, who give the crews of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" and "Growing Up Gotti" a run for their money. You have to empathize with the protagonist when he retorts to his mother's ruthless nagging with "I don't want their lives. Not in the least."

I fell hard for Paul's humbling devotion, because unlike the egomaniacs surrounding him, he knows that it's not about Paul, it's about something greater than the individual. Call me a convert, but it's a refreshing spin on a character piece.

It made me think: Who cares about Tiger or Vick? The real scandal is how little limelight is cast on the adoration of their fans — and the character actors that play them.

Big Fan recently played at the Catamount Arts Center in St. Johnsbury. Its distribution in Vermont has been meager. You should be able to dheck it out on Netflix or at Waterfront Video shortly.