Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bartleby the Giant


Movie:

Big Fan, written and directed by Robert Siegel, starring Patton Oswalt and Kevin Corrigan (2009): Every enterprise that has fans, has fans who are obsessive fringe-dwellers, and that's as true of professional football as it is of Star Trek or comic books. But because sports fandom is much more culturally accepted in the U.S. and Canada, many people would never view the act of, say, painting one's face before going to see a big game in the same light as dressing up as a Klingon to go to a Star Trek convention, even though the two acts are pretty much the same act.

Written and directed by the writer of The Wrestler, Big Fan examines the life of Paul Aufiero, a New York Giants fan who seems to live almost entirely through his football team. He carefully scripts what he'll say on radio call-in shows. His 'real' life is almost entirely non-existent -- only one friend that we see; a dead-end, low-paying job as a parking lot attendant; a family that finds him frustrating and baffling. At 36, Paul still lives at home with his mother. This could have been the most depressing movie about fandom ever.

And yet in a way it isn't, because the movie's quite careful -- and quite empathetic -- in its construction of Paul's love affair with the Giants, and why it is that his entire imaginative life orients around the team. His family members are jerks and, as he points out to his mother at one point, his successful-lawyer brother cheated on his first wife for years with the fake-boob-enhanced secretary who is now his second wife. He holds the far more financially rewarding jobs of his brother and his brother-in-law in barely concealed contempt: his job allows him all the time in the world to indulge in his fannishness, his real life of vicarious thrills, victories, defeats.

Paul doesn't think he lives a life of quiet desperation, though in many ways he does. Patton Oswalt -- a stand-up comedian best-known for being the voice of Ratatouille -- invests Paul with a weirdly jaunty nerdishness in his refusal to be part of the responsible, 'real' world of work. He's like Bartleby the Scrivener had Bartleby cheered up and found a sports team to cheer for. But otherwise, he prefers not to.

And then one day, a series of events leads Paul to be beaten into a three-day coma by his favourite Giants player. The bulk of the film then focuses on how Paul can deal with this fact, especially as the NFL suspends the player, his brother plots a $77 million lawsuit against the player, and he wrestles with the question of just how much he loves the Giants (and hates the rest of his life).

There are clear movie antecedents for this character and this narrative, from Taxi Driver to The King of Comedy to the terrible Observe and Report. The care taken with the small details that define this character and his world makes this a character study worth watching, surprisingly funny and sad at points (generally simultaneously), and with a 'shock' ending that helps define his character once and for all. Highly recommended.

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