BIG FAN Keeps its Cards Close to its Chest

Robert Siegel sure knows how to write squirm-inducing scripts. THE WRESTLER—which just got shortchanged by the Academy—was one of my favorite films of last year, but also one of the hardest to watch. Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of an over-the-hill wrestler who continues to perform—and juice up—in spite of a heart condition is not unlike watching a car wreck in slow motion for two hours … and wondering all along whether the driver is going to die.

Siegel’s buzzed-about BIG FAN, which he both wrote and directed, has a similar arc—or is “straight decline” a more accurate visual representation?—except for the first 20 minutes, which provide about 90% of the film’s laughs. Much like Ricky Gervais’ character in “The Office,” Paul is so ignorant of social conventions as to border on Asperger’s. Without getting into details, this flaw proves nearly fatal when his favorite player beats him senseless.

The obvious conundrum follows: press charges and hurt his team’s playoff chances, or feign “amnesia”? Here’s where the film turns grim. That which had previously been a source of humor—working in a parking garage, living with his mom, masturbating frequently, and calling into sports radio—becomes a source of pathos. The tonal shift is jarring at first and causes the film to sag in the middle, but by the third act I found myself sitting upright, awaiting the conclusion. Having seen THE WRESTLER, I knew anything was possible.

Writing this post two hours later, I’m still not sure if I should chastise Siegel for toying with me, or if I should congratulate him for keeping me guessing for so long. Maybe, like the ending to THE WRESTLER, I’ll choose neither.