When I was a sixth-grader, I lived and died by the Seattle Seahawks. The Kingdome was my church, and though my pew just happened to be over 1,000 miles away in some lonely Colorado Springs bedroom, my fanatical devotion was no less real for the distance. Sure, I had come to my religion the way most stupid kids stumble upon their newfound obsessions — chance, fate, or, in this case, pulling a name out of a hat to show those blasted Buffalo Bills that I wasn’t about to tolerate yet another season with Joe Ferguson behind center — but my scars were battle-tested, and each game meant yet another dance with humiliation or exhilaration. Often both. That fateful season, which just happened to coincide with the re-election of the Gipper himself (an act I wholeheartedly endorsed, what with my brain being fully soaked in the sin of youthful ignorance), Seattle fought and scratched to their best record yet, despite losing star running back Curt Warner to a horrifying knee injury mere minutes after I had signed on as a member of the Seahawk army. It was a wild ride from start to finish and, despite a mid-season head-scratcher that attempted to use a wheelchair-bound Franco Harris as a solution to the team’s ground woes, it all came down to the final game in the friendly confines; winner-takes-all trench warfare with the hated Denver Broncos. Triumph, and the division title belonged to them, and to me. Lose, and the embarrassment of a wild card slot awaited like so much crow to be devoured on Monday morning.
Needless to say, because I had wept, bled, clawed, and roared my way through the season, it would all end badly. My team had suffered a disastrous defeat, and my life was in ruins. I stared longingly out the window, wishing that the evening’s snowfall would so intensify that the world entire might disappear forever. My heart ached. The pain in my gut ran the gamut from intense to crippling. And, as if locked in a fevered death wish, I shuffled semi-conscious out the front door, the tattered short sleeves of my Seahawks t-shirt surrendering to the bitter wind as the team’s porous defense had just hours before, and I walked. No destination, no goal, not even the promise of a return. I was cold, despondent, and crushed as if by the jagged blade of young love. My foolishness knew no bounds at such a tender age, so I looked skyward and asked to be whisked from this cruel earth. I prayed for the only release due such a tortured boy, even if the damn team still had a game the next week. My colors had indeed run, my pennant limped coldly as if shot down by enemy fire, and those hated Broncos — the team loved by just about everyone else in my class — would taste from victory’s sweet cup. Had I the courage, I would have taken a solo drive to the great beyond that very day. Anything, I thought, to avoid having to face the smirking mob.
It is with this, a tale so common as to be universal, that I begin discussing Big Fan, a wonderfully pathetic new movie about an identity that goes no further than a single, driving purpose. For Paul (Patton Oswalt), this means the very lifeblood of the New York Giants. From what we see, he cares for little else; even food and sleep are mere inconveniences in what is otherwise uninterrupted passion. Only here, unlike my tale of football’s past, the fanatic in question is a grown man. An adult in biological terms alone, he lives with his mother, dares to dream under a well-worn NFL blanket from childhood, and has no greater ambition than to work as a cashier in a parking garage. His development is so beyond arrested, in fact, that it’s quite possible he’s unable to converse in any language that doesn’t begin and end with football. His primary release, given that he has but one friend (a desperately awkward comrade-in-arms named Sal) and no hint of a sex life that isn’t masturbation, is to wait with bated breath until the clock strikes 11:30pm so he can call the local sports talk show and spew shit about the Philadelphia Eagles. Only it’s the verbal explosion of a scripted warrior, as he writes his rant in a childish scrawl, if only to remember every last insult and pro-Giant slogan. Each night, his calls are interrupted by his screeching, half-asleep mother, who can’t understand who he’d be talking to at so late an hour. But this is his moment. For that brief interlude, his words matter. It is a mission — and his very life — affirmed by the disembodied god of radio.
Paul and Sal treat Sunday like an appropriately holy event, only they choose to spend game day at Giants Stadium, believing their presence alone is enough to assure victory. They don’t actually attend the game, mind you, but stay firmly planted in the parking lot watching it all unfold on a crude television hookup powered by car battery. Sure, they tailgate with the best of ‘em, hooting and hollering in the faux community setting they so desperately crave, but who needs to be inside? High-fives and chest-thumps mean just as much from the shadows. And as we consider Paul’s “other” life, the one of house and home, work and family, it is no accident that he is only really alive when the team — his team — is on the field. He doesn’t want a better job, and he sure as hell doesn’t need to date. Can’t it be, as he sputters to his mother, that this is the way he wants it? Why must he have arrived at this point simply because he lacked the social skills to seduce, conquer, and secure a better paycheck? Sure, the “losers” of life are always blamed for their plight, and it’s rare indeed for their circumstances to be seen as anything other than the inability to become what everyone else deems successful, but what of the man who envisioned this so-called dead end from the very beginning? For my money, Paul is that man. He didn’t fall to this position from a mighty perch; it was always the goal he had in mind. It’s only a failure because it isn’t the way most of us choose to live.
The moment that it holds a ring of truth, however, Paul goes and fucks it all up by stalking his favorite player, Quantrell Bishop. Paul and Sal happen to see him getting gas at a Staten Island hangout, and decide to see how their hero is going to spend his evening. The journey takes them from a drug buy to a strip club, which can only end with Paul getting the shit beat out of him by a paranoid Bishop. The beating is justified by the creepy nature of the “meeting”, one supposes, but as expected, Bishop’s actions are the inevitable result of too much liquor, ego, and sense of entitlement. He nearly kills the defenseless Paul because, well, that’s a man of his position is supposed to do. What could have been a deflating plot twist, however, fails to further involve Bishop at all, as Paul refuses to press charges, help investigators, or even file a lawsuit. Paul’s goombah brother (one of those lawyers who can only afford to advertise at 3am during bad talk shows) tries to force his hand, but Paul is having none of it. In his own sick way, though he never says so, he likely believes the assault was deserved. After all, he dared intrude on a hero’s night out, and he is but a humble man on the sidelines, waiting his turn to catch a glimpse of true royalty.
Paul even uses his radio time to admit his role in what is by then a media sensation, and predictably, he absolves Bishop of all wrongdoing. There’s no greed in this man, and to ask him to cooperate is to invite heresy. Does one betray an idol? He may refuse to play by the rules of the road when it comes to life choices, but he’s not about to jeopardize his team’s season. While Bishop remains suspended by the league pending investigation, the Giants fumble away their division lead, a turn that nearly sends Paul to an institution. What to do? How to salvage a season that so suddenly slipped away, largely to actions he could have prevented? Revenge, perhaps. There’s that prick Philadelphia Phil, that guy who always trashes his Giants every night on the same radio show. Maybe he’s to blame. What’s called for, then, is a trial by fire. A visit to enemy territory. A drive to Philly, to that one bar, and yes, face-to-face with the source of his city’s pain. His pain. The cancer in his stomach that eats away his very soul. And so to trade his Bishop jersey for Mr. McNabb. Add some green and white face paint. The ultimate disguise. He’s going in, and there’s no turning back.
What Paul does and why will come to you as it must, and thankfully, it plays as it should. Paul is a true believer, but he’s no killer. His actions are consistent with his character, and though odd, surprisingly affecting as a means to feel whole again. With this conclusion, the film offers no justification for the sum of Paul’s life, but it centers him in a reality we all share. A good case — a very good case — could be made for Paul’s madness, his detachment from real meaning, and even his deep-seated self-hatred, but before passing judgment, consider what it is that moves you to tears, or stirs up the pot of disproportionate rage, or happens to make that bad day just a little brighter after all. As always, there’s a fine line between a hobby and mental illness, but no objective truth, only personal preferences and the prejudices of our upbringing, can truly “prove” that football is any less sacred than, say, devotion to one’s children. You have your music, or your cars, while Paul has his Giants, and his closet filled with jerseys is no more a shrine to absurdity than your shelf filled with DVDs. We’ll always mock the interests of those we don’t know, or like, or bother to understand, but we all serve a god of some sort, and from the outside looking in, all men appear ridiculous to someone else. Paul’s a loon, but who among us hasn’t flown similar skies? I imagine we’re flying there still.