Review: Big Fan + Q & A with Robert Siegel and Patton Oswalt
ETA: Oops, I butchered the spelling of the director's name in my original post title. Sorry, Mr. Siegel, wherever you are!
I'm not defensive about being a Twitter user, but if I were I would defend it by pointing out the fact that I wouldn't have known that Patton was scheduled to be at yesterday's second showing of Big Fan at the Music Box Theatre. So THERE, STOOPID HEADS?!?! I AM EATING TWINKIES! LOLZ!
I actually didn't know much about the movie at all before we were standing in line for our 9:40 showing. Some of the promotional materials pointed out that Siegel (who wrote and directed this) was the writer of The Wrestler. The ZK then commented that he'd heard this wasn't a "Ha ha!" comedy, but I knew that like Apocalypse Now, BIg Fan was bound to be a gay romp.
Paul, played by Oswalt, is a fan boy. In many ways, the object of his desire seems irrelevant at first: He lives with his mother, has a sad sack job as an attendant in a parking garage. His entire social world comprises a single friend who is nearly as sad as he (Sal, played by the great Kevin Corrigan) and the listening audience of a local late-night sports radio program.
See how I slipped that in there? Anyone familiar with Oswalt and his comedy is probably inclined to call shenanigans at the thought of him as a sad, rabid sports fan. As he put it himself in the post-Q&A "I'm not a sports-waching mouth breather, I'm a Green-Lantern-shirt-wearing mouth breather." So in some sense, it certainly matters that sports is the character's obsession, and specifically that football is where he vicariously lives out his life.
After the Q&A the ZK and I both wished we'd asked how Oswalt had become attached to the project. Certainly sports makes Oswalt at once the perfect choice for the role and a very strange choice for it. On the perfect front, if you've never seen him, have a look. He is built on the Little Teapot model, short and stout. In his stand-up and last night, he's referred to himself as "hobbit," "troll," and so on. Physically juxtaposing him to his hero of heroes, a defensive lineman named Quantrell Davis, is visually hilarious and sad by turns.
On the strange front, as a comedian, writer, and actor, Oswalt is incredibly articulate, obviously a nerd, and if I'd been called on to do so, I'd have bet large wadges of cash against him being any kind of sports fan. Not, I might add, that I think it's impossible to be a nerd AND a rabid, foul-mouthed sports fan, as the significant sideways glances the ZK was shooting me throughout the movie demonstrate.
After the Q&A the ZK and I both wished we'd asked how Oswalt had become attached to the project. It may be that his total lack of affinity for sports is what slotted him perfectly into the role. (And make no mistake, he is perfect for it, and he gives a great performance. Not great for a comedian. Not great with any qualifications. It's a straight-up great performance.)
Not to go all Sapir-Whorf on the performance, but it's just possible that Oswalt's complete lack of vocabulary for the subject acted as a substantial aid to his performance. In the Q&A, there were the inevitable questions about how much of the script was improvised. I have the sense that some actors, particularly those coming from comedy, have a tendency to downplay those silly writer people and claim that they are brilliantly making things up on the fly. Siegel was actually fairly sanguine about the questions (which I've gotta imagine are annoying), saying that Patton was free to improvise when he liked, but both acknowledged that it was pretty much a disaster when he tried in Big Fan, as he'd either launch into something witty and articulate that was totally at odds with the character, or the scene would require sports chatter, and both he and Kevin Corrigan (also not a sports fan) would come up completely empty.
So Big Fan isn't the movie for those seeking out wacky Patton. Although very funny at times it's a pretty seriously dark movie. It's also quite quiet, depending heavily on location shoots in Staten Island as well as visual shorthand in his supporting cast. Siegel, a Long Islander, admitted that he'd always found the other boroughs and their denizens exotic. When accused of stereotyping in this movie, he claimed that Staten Island natives laughed at how well he'd captured them, whereas his own landsmen were offended on behalf of the defenseless white trash. Or something.
I tend to be on Seigel's side in the white stereotype debate, but I admit that there were things about the QB character that chafed a bit. On the one hand, it doesn't matter that he's black, as he's readily recognizable as any given high-profile athlete on a self-destructive binge. On the other hand, he didn't have to be black. On the gripping hand, particularly the handful of brief "fantasy sequences" that feature Jonathan Hamm looking manfully, somewhat homoerotically sportsy have a different cast to them, given his blackness and Paul's whiteness. Probably I'm overthinking it in my white, privileged way, but I also think Siegel was underthinking it in his white, privileged way.
As far as bromancery goes, it's not really the point of the movie. But that doesn't mean that the movie doesn't capitalize on the great work that Oswalt and Corrigan do together. In fact, the final scene between them is quite brilliant, not just because they play off one another beautifully, but because it's the ideal capstone (I won't say resolution, because that's also not what the movie is about) to a story that in retrospect could have ended with a giant fizzle.
For me, the evening DID end on a tragically indignant note, as Capone outed Patton as Neill Cumpston. I don't read Ain't It Cool News with any kind of regularity, but I had an epiphany as soon as Patton started to talk about the birth of this alter ego as he watched two 13-year-old boys so pumped by Blade 2 that they were physically beating on one another as they told each other how cool it was: He had perpetrated the infamous I totally camed in my pants review of Sin City. What can I say, except PATTON OSWALT, I TRUSTED YOU!
And while we're airing our dirty laundry, Mr. Oswalt, I do have to tell you that I was very touched when you talked about how Robert Ebert taught you that you didn't have to hate things to be cool, and how much his positive review meant to you. Sincerely, I may have wiped away a tear last night. But it's important to note that no one looks cool when they are enabling Joel Schumacher.
In conclusion: Big Fan is really good. Patton Oswalt is really good in it, and you should go see it and ensure that this movie has legs.