In a time when sports films too often fall into one of two categories—an underdog's inspirational tale or a slapstick spoof—it's nice to see Big Fan, a cautionary tale of hero worship and fanaticism that is heartfelt and funny without succumbing to the clichés of either. New York Giants superfan Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) is, in no uncertain terms, a loser. He's a schlub, lives with his mother in Staten Island, mans a parking-garage pay booth and religiously watches home games from the cold comfort of the Giants Stadium parking lot. His nights are spent unleashing scripted diatribes on a call-in radio show, where he slams the Eagles and one particularly antagonistic fellow caller, Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport), with hokey one-liners he spent all day crafting.
Paul's zeal leads to trouble when he and his best friend, Sal (Kevin Corrigan), spot star linebacker Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) during a night on the town and follow him to a Manhattan strip club. Some innocent interaction between superfan and player escalates, and Paul learns what some athletes really think of their most fervent supporters, in the form of a brutal beating.
Paul should be angry, but from his hospital bed he's more concerned with Bishop's game-day status than the investigation into his assault. As he wrestles to reconcile his twisted devotion to his team with where it's left him, the Giants flounder without Bishop, who was suspended because of the attack. The team's playoff berth begins to slip away, and Paul feels partly responsible.
The character is pathetic and bordering on disturbed, but Oswalt plays Paul with an intensity that never strains believability. And writer-director Robert Siegel (who wrote the screenplay for The Wrestler), while clearly mocking the sports world's most dedicated believers, is never demeaning. A fan's obsession isn't pretty, but it can be fun to watch.