Saturday, March 13, 2010

Catch ups--"Big Fan" and "Extract"

Sorry for the delay between posts. I was sidelined for about a week by sickness and then another week when things went insane at my day job. It's been awhile since I've actually hit the theater--the madness at work meant I took two weeks off my freelancing work to adjust--and I'm going tonight with a friend, so hopefully I'll have my thoughts up soon about whatever we see.

But I did want to chime in with thoughts on two films I recently was able to catch up with at home that I thought were worth brief mentions. So, enjoy!

Big Fan (2009, dir. Robert Siegel)

"I can't tell you how sick I am..."

Those words open "Big Fan," Robert Siegel's haunting look at fanaticism. And while the words are spoken in regard to its protagonist's frustration with his beloved New York Giants, they also unsettlingly foreshadow the fact that this film follows a man with some deep issues.

That man is Paul Aufierto (Patton Oswalt). Paul is a short, shlubby man in his mid-thirties. He still lives with his mother in Staten Island and works as a toll collector in a New York parking garage. He has few friends, no romantic possibilities and looks pained when he has to sit at a family get together with his successful siblings.

It's not that Paul wants a family or a better job. It's that these get togethers and these entanglements would be obstacles to the one thing he loves more than anything in life: the New York Giants. Every Sunday Paul and his best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) tailgate in the parking lot of the Giants' stadium, alternating in cheers and curses as they watch the game on television while the fans watch it live just a few feet away. Paul's greatest triumph, the thing that makes him come alive, is when he can deliver his carefully written and rehearsed diatribes on a sports talk radio show, where he trades barbs with his rival, Philadelphia Phil.

Paul is obsessed with the Giants. It's the only thing that makes gives him passion. He goes through his days with a pained expression on his face, suffering his family and those who offer him "something better" for a living. But he smiles, cheers, laughs and screams when the Giants are on. For him "Football is Life, the rest is just details" is not a clever t-shirt's his philosophy.

One night, Paul and Sal are out and run across the Giants' star quarterback, Quantrell Bishop (Johnathan Hamm). An feeble attempt at saying hello quickly turns disastrous and Paul finds himself severely assaulted by Bishop. Upon awaking three days later in the hospital, Paul is urged by his friends and family to sue. But that would mean Bishop would be unable to play and the Giants would likely lose. And if the Giants lose, what does Paul have to hope for in life?

It's easy to see that "Big Fan" could, in lesser hands, become a broad, raucous comedy. And that's probably what anyone would expect coming from Oswalt, one of the best stand-up comedians working these days (and a solid comedic actor in his own right in "King of Queens" or "Ratatouille"). But Siegel, who wrote the devastating "The Wrestler," has a different story in mind, one that feels more like "Taxi Driver" than "Celtic Pride."

The most devastating thing about the character of Paul Aufiero is that I know he exists. He's the friend who obsessively talks about sports anytime he gets a chance, arguing until he's red in the face about his team's chances next fall---in the middle of summer. He's the movie geek who spends hours on message boards, tearing apart every comic book adaptation and going off on diatribes about his favorite actors and actresses. He's the political addict, spouting Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or (on the other side) Al Franken and Chris Matthews as if their words were Gospel, flying off the handle anytime something threatens his deeply ingrained, cherished and elevated political beliefs.

In other words, "Big Fan" is not about sports. It's about obsession. In another context, it's about idolatry. It's about what happens when something takes such a place in our lives that everything else becomes meaningless. It's not that Paul is an evil person. It's that he's a sick obsessed with football that everything else is secondary. He's got a job, but no desire to better himself, move out of his mother's home, start a family or live a normal life. When the Giants begin to lose because of his dilemma, he struggles with how to proceed--deal in a way that preserves his dignity, or make a sacrifice to his idols.

It's a shame this film didn't get much of a release--had I seen it before the year's end, Oswalt's performance would be one of my top five of 2009. His routines often deal with pop culture obsessions and general geekery, but here he lets go of any of the joy it brings and showcases a sad, sick man who is so captured by his idols that his own life is secondary. It's a powerful performance and Oswalt's brings to life Paul's saddness, loneliness, anger and resentement while still making us empathetic for the character. The "Taxi Driver" comparison I made earlier wasn't flippant--Paul could easily be kin to Travis Bickle, an isolated loner with no connections. The difference is that Paul's isolated himself and, unlike Bickle, seems to not care about his lack of connections.

Siegel's script is solid, as is his direction. I'm sure that there was the temptation to inject a bit of humor into the story or lighten up Paul's character a bit...but that would have been wrong. Like "The Wrestler," this is a story of a man who's been damaged by his own choices and is so obsessed with sticking to the things that have brought him joy before that he neglects any chance to sacrifice it in hopes of new happiness. The film's final 20 minutes get dark and I began to fear that Siegel was going to make the "Taxi Driver" comparisons a bit too apt...but the final moments balance tragedy with a sad humor without tipping things too dark.

"Big Fan" unfortunately didn't get much of a release, but I believe most cable companies are carrying it direct and it should be able to be found on DVD. It's definitely worth a look.

Extract (2009, dir. Mike Judge)

Mike Judge just can't win, can he?

First, "Office Space" was ignored in theaters only to become a cult classic. Then "King of the Hill," despite being on television for over a decade, was always considered Fox's underdog animated comedy. Then "Idiocracy" languished for months, was dumped into approximately two theaters and released unceremoniously to DVD where--you guessed it--it became a cult classic.

This past fall, Miramax gave Judge a fair shake with "Extract," his return to the workplace comedy. They promoted the film, released it in a good number of theaters and gave it every show to work. And...audiences stayed away.

Given Judge's track record, I'm sure they'll catch up eventually.

And they should. While nothing great, "Extract" is an often funny and witty comedy featuring Judge's trademark deadpan wit. While I'm a fan of "Idiocracy," this film tones down the volume a bit and is a more focused work, allowing Judge's trademark dry humor to flourish and giving some well-respected comedic actors a chance to shine.

Jason Bateman is Joel Reynolds, the owner of an extract factory. He's happy with his job, proud of what he can do and trying his best to manage a crew of dimwitted gossips on the production floor. It doesn't help that his co-manager Brian (J.K. Simmons) has so little interest in his job that he has stopped learning his employee's names, prefering instead to call them "boy genius" and "dinkus" (there may actually be two dinkuses.)

Joel is having a bit of a rough time as the film opens. He's not having much luck with his wife (Kristen Wiig), who puts on sweatpants and denies him any extracurricular marital activities if he's not home by eight each night. An unfortunate accident at the plant has cost one of his workers a vital part of the male anatomy and could cost Joel an important sale to General Mills. And there's the distractingly beautiful new employee Cindy (Mila Kunis), who feigns interest in Joel but may have ulterior motives in mind.

"Extract's" marketing hinged on comparing the film to "Office Space," but that's not entirely true. The sympathies are switched here. If "Office Space" was about the little men rebelling against a faceless, unsympathetic and clueless corporate world, "Extract" is about the Man and his frustration with the selfish, clueless peons he manages. And there's some clever humor in watching the factory women gossip about the new foreign help or in the airheaded forklift driver inviting everyone to his band's show.

But satire seems to be further from Judge's mind here, as he's actually interested in telling a story about characters. As much as I love "Office Space" and "Idiocracy," the characters were two-dimensional, nothin more than entry points into a broader satire. Here, Judge actually has characters with arcs, interested in saving their marriage, selling the factory or just selling some tranquilizer.

While it's refreshing to see Judge branch out a bit, the film does lose a bit of the focus that the best parts of his other works have had. It's fun to see Gene Simmons as a disgusting lawyer, but he's only good for a scene and then the subplot's dropped. There's a b-story about Joel hiring a gigolo to cheat with his wife so he can be excused for getting into an affair, but the story never really gels or provides much humor, except for the fact that the gigolo is brilliantly dumb.

The humor here seems to come when the film forgets the plot and lets its characters riff. Simmons and Bateman's scenes are always amusing--any scene in any movie with J.K. Simmons is amusing, as a rule. Ben Affleck shows up as a drug dealer/bartender/part-time pimp and his musings are the film's highlights. David Koechner shows up as the world's most boring, intrusive neighbor and his scenes are probably the most dead-on satire in the film, perfectly capturing Judge's dry sensibility and feeling very "Office Space"-esque.

But for everything that works, something doesn't. Wiig has proven that, given the right work, she's one of the funniest women working. Unfortunately, her role is underwritten and she's the straight character, not the best place for her to be. Kunis is fine in her role but her con of an injured worker just doesn't seem to work and her storyline just kind of fades out. The film's climax is a bit messy as well.

Still, "Extract" is able to, um, extract a few charms and good laughs. It's nice to see Affleck this loose and funny and Bateman's line delivery is always great. It's nice to see Judge trying to get a bit more ambitious with his storytelling....let's just hope before he steps into the office again he pays attention to his performance reviews.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.