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Big Fan is a football movie that isn’t really about sports

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the Super Bowl happening on Sunday, we’ve lined up a week of movies about football and its fans.

Big Fan (2009)

Technically, Big Fan isn’t a football movie, at least not in the way people usually mean it. The film’s main characters obsess over the game, but it never shows a single ball being snapped. “Obsess” is the operative word, because only an obsessive would make the choices Patton Oswalt makes.

In his first dramatic leading role, Oswalt plays Paul Aufiero, a flunky 36-year-old parking garage attendant who lives with his mom, but lives for the New York Giants. His life revolves around Sundays, when he and best friend Kevin Corrigan watch games on a TV hooked up to his car battery in the parking lot of Giants Stadium, and he spends most other nights calling into a sports-talk show and shit-talking Eagles fans (particularly “Philadelphia Phil,” played by Michael Rapaport). Although Paul’s perfectly happy with his life, it looks pathetic to everyone around him, and their consternation peaks when an encounter with his favorite Giants player leaves Paul badly beaten. Knowing he holds the future of the player and his beloved team in his hands, Paul has to choose between what’s right for him and what’s best for the team. If it seems insane that it’s even a question, well, that’s why it’s called Big Fan.

The film is the directorial debut of Robert D. Siegel, who made a name for himself in 2008 as the writer of Mickey Rourke comeback vehicle The Wrestler. (Siegel is a former editor of The Onion, but no one on the current A.V. Club staff ever worked with him.) He sought out Oswalt to play the lead, which wasn’t an obvious choice back in 2009, even for the comedian. “The fact that he trusted me made me get outside of myself and say, ‘Okay, I don’t know if I totally trust myself doing this, but the fact that he wants me to do it is giving me the confidence to do it,’” Oswalt told us in 2009. At that point, he was used to what Dana Gould calls “jetpack acting,” as he described to us: fly in, say his line, then fly out. Five years later, Oswalt’s credits have become more varied, but Big Fan was the first to show his deftness with drama.

Siegel, who wrote the script, creates a thoroughly insular world—it’s no accident that Big Fan is set on Staten Island. Paul spends much of his time in his tiny parking-attendant box or his similarly small, sadly adolescent-looking bedroom. Bigger spaces—like his meathead brother’s McMansion—feel even more oppressive, because his family continually needles him. They aren’t off base; it’s hard to understand why someone would be content with a dead-end life, but he is. “How do you get a concussion when you don’t got any fuckin’ brains?” Paul’s brother asks at one point.

Although Big Fan is a drama, Siegel’s script doesn’t lay it on thick, and it’s quite funny at times. Oswalt’s comic instincts inform his performance—fans of his comedy will recognize the exasperation he displays with his family. That lightness of touch makes Big Fan an effective (and affecting) portrait of blind devotion.

Availability: Big Fan is available on DVD (which can be obtained through Netflix), to rent or purchase through the major digital providers, and to stream through Crackle (with ads).