Writer-director Robert D. Siegel admires the faithful. Both his script for The Wrestler, and now his directorial debut, Big Fan, focus on men whose dreams have bankrupted every aspect of their lives — except the spiritual. His films would likely be overlooked art-house material if these muted Christian allegories weren’t so intermittently corny, droll and mawkishly sentimental. Everyone, after all, loves an underdog.
Big Fan’s Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) endures a layered casserole of Middle-American humiliations: he’s 35 years old, works in a parking lot (“Have fun in your box!” an irate customer yells), lives with his mother (“What kind of life is this for a grown man?”) and romances his hand nightly. Paul’s only interest centers on the New York Giants, the football team for which he lives and breathes obsessively. He immerses himself in radio call-in shows, superstitious rituals and game days spent in the stadium parking lot (because, of course, Paul and his friend Sal, played by Kevin Corrigan, can’t afford to get in).
Paul’s loyalty to the Giants is tested, however, when a chance encounter with his hero, quarterback Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), turns unexpectedly violent. Paul wakes up in the hospital with a head injury, surrounded by a persistent investigating officer and an irate brother. Against all reasonable expectations, Paul ignores the incident, concerned that it might negatively impact his team. Even as things get worse—Bishop is suspended, Paul is publicly outed as his victim—he remains inflexible. It’s a modern, soft-shoe version of the Job story, in which fandom has become the new religion.
Siegel aligns audiences with this sincere but otherwise unappealing sideliner by casting mercurial stand-up comedian Oswalt, who has the childish, pouting face of a cherub grown old. The camera hovers over him for the duration of the film, sometimes asking for emotions he’s not able to deliver, but Oswalt has a genuine affability and his comic persona is a useful hedge against Paul’s acidic presence.
By film’s end, it’s tempting to compare Paul to previous big screen antiheroes, Big Fan’s grim tone evoking 1970s benchmarks Taxi Driver and Joe. But this new loner breed is of a different stripe psychologically. He is not a radical, but the schlubby antithesis: he resists change and is reasonably content with himself and his faded existence. Siegel exalts these punching bags into second-string saints, taking the hits, sustained only by their faith in something as (non)trivial as a football team or a signature wrestling move. It’s inspiring and horrible at once.
Co-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are also filmmakers who trade in religious allegory, but in a subtle and astringent style light-years away from Siegel’s. Their oeuvre is composed of intimate, hardscrabble salvation stories from the underbelly of their native Belgium. Bleak but redemptive, their work has earned the Palme d’Or at Cannes twice (for Rosetta and L’Enfant) and, lately, a growing chorus of critics who grouse about the similarity of their films.
The brothers’ latest outing, Lorna’s Silence, tells the story of a hopeful Albanian immigrant (Arta Dobroshi) involved in a mercenary scam: Having married a junkie (Jérémie Renier) for citizenship, her underworld handler (Fabrizio Rongione) insists they kill him and move on to their next victim. Most of the film hinges on the awakening of Lorna’s conscience, which is gradual but hard to begrudge since, as the Dardennes remind us over and over again, money is the engine that drives everything.
The relatively unknown Dobroshi provides a quietly radiant presence here, which transcends the moral muck of her situation. Adding to the effect is the Dardennes’ graduation from 16mm to 35mm, which signals a more controlled, frame-conscious aesthetic. Lorna’s Silence may not be their most wrenching piece—they’ve set unbelievably high standards there—but it’s their most refined yet.