BAMCinemaFest Review: Big Fan
This past year, one of the films I was looking forward to the most was Jody Hill’s Observe and Report.
Mr. Hill, along with his muse, the comic-actor Danny McBride, had had a meteoric rise, starting with the little-seen but influential indie-comedy The Foot Fist Way, going all the way up to the hit HBO series Eastbound and Down.
His newest film, Observe and Report, was billed as the exact sort of edgy, black comedy that he made his name with; a dark, dark humorous-update of Taxi Driver complete with mall cops, bimbos and parking-lot-flashers.
While this was a brilliant idea though, as Taxi Driver is exactly the sort of earnest movie that is rife for parody, Hill couldn’t pull it off and the movie was too grotesque in its darkness and also not dark enough in its light moments to really be effectively comedic. Instead, it alienated most everyone, including audiences.
It is out of this disappointment that I am glad to say someone has succeeded where Jody Hill has failed: Robert Siegel with his new film, Big Fan.
Big Fan, which had its premiere at Sundance before coming to BAM, follows another pathetic loser, only this time, instead of a mall cop, we get a ticket-taker at a parking lot. This is a man who lives to play not on the football field he so admires, but on the field of late-night call-in sports-radio, where his back-and-forth heckling reaches epic levels against a deplorable villain who goes only by the moniker “Philadelphia Phil”.
Our hero–if he can be called that–is played by Patton Oswalt, one of the few actual actors in the film and this is one place that Mr. Siegel goes dangerously right. Mr. Siegel, whose last script was The Wrestler, seems to have culled the best of Darren Aronofsky impulses from that movie and added it to his own sensibilities. Just as The Wrestler was informed by the backrooms of semi-pro wrestlers, Big Fan could not exist without the real people of Staten Island, mostly non-actors, whose houses the film was shot in.
As a result, the location feels real, as do the characters. Even when the film veers into the parodic, for instance in a gleeful scene mocking TV spots for ambulance-chasing lawyers, it feels true, because, hey, it’s Staten Island and it’s not so hard to believe. Everyone around Mr. Oswalt’s schlub seems to be living it up in such McMansion-mediocrity that his choice to live in a different sort of fantasy world–the world of sports-hecklers–seems almost relatable.
Like Observe and Report, there are many dark moments in the film–certainly most of us would not want to live in this character’s world–but ultimately the film has compassion for all of it and unexpected lightheartedness. “It’s going to be a great year.” Mr. Oswalt says towards the end of the film and we believe him.
At a Q-and-A after the film, Mr. Siegel said that he likes his movies to be a balance between funny and sad.
“The Wrestler was about 80% funny and 20% sad,” he said. “This one’s about 50/50.”
He said that he prefers his movies this way because he feels that comedy and tragedy are intertwined, which is true, but that balance can often be hard to strike and it is much to Mr. Siegel’s credit that he managed it.
Finally, it is important to say that I saw this movie in a “packed” crowd. This was the New York premiere and obviously many people who had worked on the movie from Staten Island were there, chanting-and-hollering defiantly. But then again, I feel more lucky than influenced in my assessment of the film; after all, I think if the film was bad, those Staten Islanders would have beaten the crap out of Siegel on stage (a scrawny fellow) instead of giving him cheers and hugs, like they did.