How much ethical stock do we put in our heroes? How much do they transcend our definition of a “normal” human? Big Fan, a 2009 independent film written and directed by Robert D. Seigel (The Wrestler, The Onion Movie) seeks to examine this. It stars stand-up comedian and part-time actor Patton Oswalt (Reno 911: Miami, Ratatouille) as Paul Auferio, a 36 year old man who lives at home with his mother on Staten Island, and whose singular pleasure in life is dictated by the success of the New York Giants. His favorite player, quarterback Quantrell Bishop, is his reverent idol and he and his friend Sal (likeminded funny man Kevin Corrigan) are linked most closely by their shared devotion to the team.
Paul is a parking attendant with seemingly no ambitions other than the vehement football diatribes he pens in his free time and then calls in to monologue on a late night sports radio talk show, Sportslog. His existence is depicted as depressingly stagnant; Auferio is berated by his family for not aspiring to achieve more, but he simply doesn't care about anything but his dedication to the Giants.
Considering the typically comedic presence touted by both aforementioned actors, the film presents itself as an ominous and very dark comedy. While watching the film, the audience feels as though they are being asked to laugh even when there is nothing evidently funny, as the crude and deploring lifestyle lead by the two friends beg for mockery. Still, the film's despondent nature is heightened by the persistence of dim, yet well-contrasted lighting and a low, ambient soundtrack that never reaches its anticipated climax.
There is always the sense that something terrible is looming in the near future; Paul's character is marked by his general apathy and detachment towards everything in his life but football. He seems to hover on the brink of mental handicap, only displaying emotion when dwelling on the Giants. The film's initial track is that of a sad, complacent lifestyle that is ruptured by one single and traumatic event.
When we are chanced the opportunity to observe our hero – or simply a public figure whom we greatly admire - in an everyday setting, most people feel compelled and in a sense, obligated to themselves to approach them. Generally it's a harmless encounter: a benign request for an autograph or picture, a moment to gush about our appreciation for them. So when Paul and Sal spot Quantrell Bishop at a gas station, their similar obsession leads them to seek an interaction with him. As their quest evolves, the foreboding sense of something bad impending seems to amplify.
This is a distinct feature of the movie: the ability to vivify each scene with the sense that these characters – simple and fanatic – are on the brink of falling into something very wrong. This comes to pass when their calculated encounter ends violently for Paul, leaving him with the saturnine knowledge that his idol is not the valiant, upstanding man he has always envisioned him to be.
Here exists the dark and appealing aspect of the film; the distressing notion that the person you respect or favor most – be it for their athletic aptitude, celebrated musical talent or whatever asset it is you hold dear to yourself of them – could hurt you. Or to a lesser extent, not be that exemplary of a human, or even simply not be what you expected. It prompts you, the viewer, to consider who in your life could inflict similar distress upon you – how could your hero most upset you? Because of the obsessive pedestal that Paul holds Bishop on, he is reluctant to press any charges against the player, or sour his name and reputation in any way.
As the film progresses, we see and sympathize with the frustration of his family, who regard Paul's decisions as stupid, and consider him a hindrance to his mother and an incapable vehicle of self-sufficiency. He is profoundly embarrassed by his newfound status as the victim of a spoiled celebrity – his idol, no less – and his situation is being paraded and remarked upon at Sportslog, which has clearly served as a sort of convent to Paul's devotion prior to the incident. He is jeered at by a particularly boisterous Eagles fan on the show, who identifies Auferio's caller name - “Paul from Staten Island” - as Paul the victim and invites him to “join the other side” (become an Eagles fan). This is what sends Paul over the edge.
There is little to laugh about throughout the film, although the humorous inflections provided by the characters are extant in some dialogue. It is the fixed titillation with which Sal and Paul talk about football, and their undying loyalty even after the incident that grips the viewer. You are both appalled and perturbed by their actions – mainly because in many ways you find yourself questioning its validity in terms of how you might behave if placed in such a situation. Would you endanger the well being of your idol – would you, knowing their career would plummet, sue them and inevitably profit if they caused you harm?
The end of the film is disturbing but probably also the bizarrely funniest part, that never crosses a line versed in either complacence or extreme violence towards Paul's vices. It remains in the vein of the realistic controversy that is consistent with the film's tone. The conclusion neither strives to deliver redemption to Auferio, or assure us of his recovery. It's a fairly unexplored idea that Big Fan tackles, bringing to light the interesting question of idolatry and to what degree we are willing to forgive those we worship.