WHEN FANTASY AND REALITY COLLIDE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"How many adults have an adventure serial running in their head?" Gore Vidal once asked, in an essay on Tarzan. And a little later he answered, "In a society that every day grows more and more confining, the average person is apt to take to daydreaming."

Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), the antihero of Robert D. Siegel's "Big Fan," is above average in obsessive concentration, below average in the ability to achieve adulthood - and with every ounce of his warped creativity, he takes daydreaming to extremes, especially at night.

This smaller-than-life man uses the world of midnight sports-talk radio shows to create a bigger-than-life Bizarro identity. In person, he's a chubby hospital parking cashier living with his mother. On the phone, he's rabid "Paul from Staten Island," the New York Giants fan who can always talk a ton of trash to airwave interlopers such as "Philadelphia Phil" (Michael Rapaport). Actually, he labors over his supposedly off-the-cuff riffs all day, when he isn't handing out receipts or change.

In "Big Fan," writer-director Siegel and his star depict the kind of totally committed escapist whose dreams have become his preferred reality. It's both a black-comic, pathos-laden character study and a cautionary tale of what happens when escapism ceases to have any connection to flesh-and-blood life.

The movie pivots on what happens when fantasy and reality collide in the person of Giants linebacker Quantrill Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), Paul's favorite player, who in a paranoid, presumably drug-fueled fit beats his biggest fan to a pulp.

Like Paddy Chayefsky without schmaltz, Siegel, who previously wrote "The Wrestler," has a gift for capturing the claustrophobic terror and the curdled warmth of the existence Paul shares in cramped quarters with his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz). He feels even more hemmed in when his nouveau-riche siblings, including his successful shyster brother (Gino Cafarelli), try to offer help. But the movie's most original relationship is Paul's friendship with fellow Giants fanatic Sal (the superbly self-effacing Kevin Corrigan). A sweet, hapless fellow, he thinks that Paul's rants are pieces of spontaneous genius. He's the big fan's biggest fan.

Like many a small picture, "Big Fan" makes you wish that the mainstream cinema had some equivalent to the short story or novella form. But Siegel works enough mystery and surprise into Paul's psyche - and Oswalt embodies his sweaty anxieties and odd pride so well - that the movie holds you straight through to its startling payoff. Siegel takes us to the brink of operatic melodrama, then lands us in a tragicomic spot: a psychological landscape of alternate life and make-believe death.

MPAA rating: R (for language and some sexuality)

Running time: 1:26

Starring Patton Oswalt (Paul Aufiero), Kevin Corrigan (Sal) and Marcia Jean Kurtz (Paul's Mom). A First Independent Pictures Release. Directed by Robert D. Siegel

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