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I’m not a fan of most sports movies. In my opinion, sports and movies are just too genetically similar for them to safely breed. Both have plot, characters, suspense and action. Isolated, these traits make a great film or a great game. But when they intermingle, the result is very much similar to when humans with common DNA reproduce. You’re either going to get something retarded (i.e. Benchwarmers) or, in the worse case scenario, an abomination against God that should never be seen by human eyes (i.e. Eddie).
It’s like doing those Punnett square from high school biology. You take certain traits, and can predict what will be produced. About 1% of the time, some kind of dormant characteristic shows up and you actually get a good sports movie (like Hoop Dreams, Friday Night Lights, Murderball, The Wrestler, and Raging Bull). But 99% of the time, the dominant traits prevail and we’re left with another crappy sports movie that falls into one of these four categories:
1) Team deals with racism, defies all odds (Examples: Pride, The Express, Remember the Titans, Glory Road, Coach Carter)
2) Underdog is too young/small/homeless/Jamaican/white but defies the odds (The Blind Side, Rudy, Seabiscuit, The Rookie, Cool Runnings, Hoosiers)
3) Ragtag group of underachievers rally to defy the odds and make it to the big game (Mighty Ducks, The Replacements, Little Giants, Major League, Miracle)
4) An awful film defies the odds and somehow get released to the viewing public (Fever Pitch, Driven, Gridiron Gang, Any Given Sunday)
Starting to notice the formula here? Not too hard huh? Look, usually I’m a fan of formulas. Formulas are what keep my airplane from falling out of the sky when I fly somewhere. They’re what keep me from having hallucinations and thinking that my stove is a fire-breathing dragon when I take some cough syrup. Formulas are safe. They give us the expected and desired results—which is fine when it comes to flying or taking medicine, but not when it comes to being entertained by a movie.
That’s why I loved Big Fan. It didn’t follow any formula of a sports movie. It didn’t even show one sports scene. Not a one. It wasn’t about a team, or a player, or overcoming adversity, or chasing the elusive championship. For many, this disqualifies it from even being a sports movie, but not for me. Because if you watch it (which you should), you’ll understand that it does a better job capturing what sports mean to many of us, more so than any other movie I’ve named so far (including those 1%’ers that are actually good films).
I’ll spare you from the standard synopsis of the film or from revealing any key plot elements, other than that Big Fan features Patton Oswalt (a great stand-up comedian who you may recognize as Spence from “King of Queens” or the voice of Ratatouille) playing Paul Aufiero, a guy from Staten Island who works as parking attendant and loves the New York Giants.
What makes Big Fan a great sports movie, and perhaps my favorite sports movie of all time, is because I can relate to it. I’m your standard issue, upper-middle class white guy. I’ve never been told I couldn’t be on a swim team because of my race, I’ve never had an alcoholic father who barged into my basketball games to berate the refs, I’ve never driven a car over 150mph while my arch-nemesis tried to drive me into a wall or have been a washed up quarterback looking for a second shot. I’m just some random guy with a beer gut, credit card debt, normal problems, and an overwhelming passion for my teams.
That’s what Paul Aufiero is. He spends his work day scripting out what he’ll say when he calls into the local sports talk show, which knows him by name. He drives out to Giants Stadium with his friend for home games, wearing his jersey, to watch games on a crappy little TV in the parking lot. At 35 years old, he still sleeps on the same NFL sheets I had when I was 12. His family doesn’t get his obsession, and wonders why he doesn’t settle down and get a better job.
While we may not all go the extremes that Paul does in the film, we can all see some of him in us. The idolizing of star players. The zealous following of sports radio and blogs. The endless talks with friends, second-guessing decisions. Taking losses personally. The rationalizing of moves. The eternal hope next season brings. It goes beyond what his character represents or our ability to relate with him. Paul Aufiero allows us to see what we look like sometimes to the outside world.
This movie allows you to do what most sports movies don’t give you the chance to: think. It takes no neural function to walk away from some cookie cutter sports flick and say, “Gee, racism is bad!” or “Everyone in life deserves a second shot.” Christ, I hope we all learned those lessons long ago. Of course racism is bad. Of course people deserve a second chance. Do you really need Denzel Washington and 90 minutes to realize something like that?
It’s much more difficult to look at yourself in a critical way and try to grasp what your sports obsession means and what it looks like to people who just don’t give a crap like you do. It’s not easy to wonder if it’s odd to still have posters of your favorite player on your bedroom wall. No one wants to think, “I am kind of pathetic?”
But that’s what Big Fan does. It may not always be pleasant, but at least it’s genuine, at least it means something to people like you and me, because it’s about people like you and me. So do yourself a favor and take an hour and half to watch this film. Pick it up at Best Buy. Run down to Blockbuster. Hell, it’s even on Netflix’s Watch Instantly, so if you have that, you don’t even need to leave your house. Watch it, enjoy, reflect and appreciate the fact that someone finally made a great movie for sports fans. Not just a crappy film for fans of sports movies.