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Big Fan: The Dark Side of Frantic Obsession
What is it about comedians giving stellar performances? Is it because it goes against our expectations, or maybe because no one understands the strains of life better than the ones who get the joke?
Paul (Oswalt) is the biggest fan of the New York Giants. Between an imminent midlife crisis and a dead-end security job, the Giants’ fandom is Paul’s only excuse for a calling. His family endlessly nags him about his lack of ambition. His mother, who still puts a roof over his head, is annoyed about his daily calls to his favourite radio sports show, and both his siblings beg him to procure a better job. However, none of them can get through to him, because none of them understand how comforting and consuming an obsession can be; it’s the drug of choice for the marginalized.
The film’s director, Robert Siegel also penned the script to 2008’s Wrestler, where Mickey Rourke sacrifices himself for the sake of his legacy. In Big Fan, Paul’s devotion endures a test of purity when the Giants’ star player physically violates him, and subsequently, a chain of events leads to the team falling behind in the season. Again, the main character has to choose between himself and his identity; a dilemma that forces him to confront what he has been escaping from all his life. Big Fan doesn’t hold back on showing us the ugly truth.
Fandom imbues its comrades with a sense of self-importance, and at first, Big Fan makes light of the sentiment. By midpoint, the film shifts gear from observing Paul and his vapid passion to sharing the world from his perspective. Paul is served right by Oswalt’s comic talents. A huge comic book geek himself, the actor is no stranger to the subject of fan obsession. And while it may be true that he’s playing a self-aggrandised version of himself; that doesn’t make any less impressive the talent and stamina that he brings to the film.
Siegel’s directing debut finds him without a clear voice. More of a passion project, Big Fan proves how big of a role Darren Aronofsky played in turning the wrestler into a twenty-first century Christ figure. Despite the lack of a strong vision, Big Fan still manages to capture truth in a challenging way.
She wakes up from her coma to a husband who she doesn’t remember and parents who are overjoyed that she’s forgotten about their dispute. While Paige’s parents try to bring her back to the way of life that she’d rebelled against, Leo tries to help her remember why she’d left all that behind in the first place. Fighting for a wife who doesn’t remember him and is a completely different person than the one he knew, Leo tries to get her to fall in love with him again.
The film rarely gets unbearably cheesy, setting it apart from your run of the mill Sparks adaptation. It gets mushy, emotional and sappy, but it’s more likely to make you smile than roll your eyes. Leo’s pain and heartbreak combined with Paige’s family’s delight at having their daughter back, gives the film a level of grit that keeps it from becoming overly cloying. However, the secret of the film’s success is the leads, who have great chemistry and manage to pass off some of the cheesiness as bearable.
Based on writer Alan Bennett’s 1989 memoir, the ‘mostly true’ story of one Margaret Shepherd - an eccentric homeless woman who back in the mid-70’s decided to set up camp in Bennett’s North London driveway and stay there for fifteen years - is beautifully told in Nicholas Hytner’s The Lady in the Van; a humorous and touching tale of an unusual friendship brought to life by an engaging script and one deliciously weird and quirky performance by the forever-great Dame Maggie Smith.
Adapted to the screen by Bennett himself – his story was initially turned into a book back in 1989 before taking up stage in London’s West End in 1999 - The Lady in the Van begins by introducing Alan Bennett (Jennings); a witty, dry and a seemingly withdrawn playwright who has just moved in to his new home in Camden, London. Thanks to camera trickery, there are two versions of the writer to be witnessed here; one is Bennett the man – a shy and a reserved fellow who deals with the outside world – and Bennett the writer; someone who sits, writes and complains about the lack of intrigue and excitement in their somewhat boring and complicated co-existence.
Things take an interesting turn with the appearance of Miss. Shepherd (Smith); a strange, smelly and a particularly single-minded drifter who lives out of the back of a van. After not being able to park her van out on the street anymore, Miss. Shepherd – whose unconventional characteristics have already ignited an interest in the writer – turns to Bennett for help. Taking pity on the poor old lady, he soon agrees for her to temporarily use his driveway which, as it turns out, she stayed on for fifteen years.
It’s easy to recognise The Lady in the Van’s theatrical roots with the movie bearing a somewhat of an artificial and at times, a distractingly stagey feel. However, that should not pose as a problem with the magnificent Maggie Smith at play, whose performance is so engaging that it’s easy to forgive the film’s tiny drawbacks. Reprising her acclaimed stage performance, Smith is absolutely superb as the wandering oldster whose mysterious past involving a hit-and-run – something that serves as the major subplot in the story – has led her to where she is today. Her interaction with Bennett – a pleasantly reliable Jennings - is where the story’s heart lies and it’s his never-ending curiosity about his particularly strange squatter that ends up slowly unravelling the mystery behind her suffering existence.
Staying clear of unnecessary melodrama and over-sentimentalising its subject, The Lady in the Van is all about Smith’s turn and, while its peculiar set up may not appeal to everyone’s taste, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being taken in by this 80 year old actress’ immense talent and her incredible ability of commanding the screen.