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Sugar/Big Fan: Two Sports Films That Aren’t About Sports At All

Sugar is as much about baseball and Big Fan is as much about football as Raging Bull is about boxing or The Wrestler is about wrestling. They use an accurate portrayal of sports mentality as a framework for an in-depth portrait of a character. Both of these pictures perfectly capture a rarely covered aspect of their respective games. Sugar follows a young man from the Dominican Republic imported to America with hopes of making the majors. Big Fan follows an obsessed Giants fan who compulsive tailgates, talks sports, and listens to sports radio– he’s a “superfan.” Sugar sticks to its Horatio Alger-esque course admirably, sketching a subtly nuanced portrait of this life and the pressures that build. Big Fan boasts some memorable performances and a frighteningly real depiction of superfandom, but sometimes it gets lost in its desire for dark comedy.

Sugar follows Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Sotos) from being a boy with a mean pitch in the Dominican Republic to becoming a minor league pitcher in America with dreams of making the pros. It can get very lonely in America, as few people fluently speak his language– even his coaches. At the local diner, he orders french toast every day, because his first day in town he heard someone say that phrase. One day he tries to get ambitious and order an egg… until the waitress tries to decipher how he wants his egg prepared. After a short struggle, he simply says, “French toast.” He lives with a local Christian couple, and begins to have feelings for one of the girls who comes over for family dinners (Ellary Porterfield). He becomes a hot prospect, but when his pitch starts to slump, and he is faced with the prospect of being sent back home to the Dominican Republic, he is forced to make some tough decisions.

Paul Aufiero, the title character in Robert Siegel’s Big Fan, tries to avoid decision-making altogether. Paul (Patton Oswalt) lives with his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz), has successful obnoxious siblings, and works a day job as a ticket-taker in a parking garage. The only thing that Paul loves is his New York Football Giants, and he fills the dullness of his existence with sports talk radio, which he is constantly playing and calling in to almost nightly. His love for his team is so complete that when an encounter with the star of the Giants goes wrong, he is reluctant to do anything that might jeopardize the success of his team– he’d experience pain and anguish and embarrassment if it meant the Giants could make the playoffs.

Sugar trusts its audience and takes its time. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who previously wrote and directed the critically-acclaimed Ryan Gosling film Half Nelson, know that film is a visual medium, and lets the story be told through exchanged glances, through lingering moments, through watching Sugar’s face take in everything around him. When your main character doesn’t speak the language that the other characters do for the majority of the film, it de-emphasizes the importance of dialogue as a necessary tool for moving a plot forward. Even as Sugar succeeds and fails, we get the sense that it’s not the fame from baseball that he’s chasing. He’s merely using his natural gift in order to hope for some betterment of his and his family’s situation. His relationships and feelings are complex, and we see him grow. It might be a bit too meticulously paced for some, but the pay off is worth it. It might not be the most action-packed, exciting film of 2009, so it will slip under the radar, but here is story telling and character building in the hands of experts, and a side to the American dream of baseball we rarely hear about. It’s unpredictable without feeling out of control.

Robert Siegel’s hand is less steady in Big Fan. While the moments where Siegel lets the drama and tension soak in are very effective, too often he injects a dark comedy scene to lighten the mood. This distracts us from the fact that Patton Oswalt gives a very convincing and obsessive performance as Paul– one of the better performances by an actor this year. It’s like Siegel thinks we want to laugh at these characters, or that we think Oswalt is funny and thus need some relief. Nothing was more exciting for me than the first couple of minutes, just watching Paul live. His life is pathetic, but not in a way that made me want to laugh. He’s a clearly troubled man, with no ambition or goal other than to wage battle against a caller into his radio show named Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport). He lives vicariously through his sports team– he feels like he is part of the gang, so if they win, he too is a winner. People do escape this deeply into sports: it can become an obsession, and even for the casual fan, a rivalry game can be enough to ignite one’s passion to extraordinary levels (ask any of my fellow Duke attendees). His inability to detach himself from the team is what causes the truly horrifying awkward scene in a bar where he approaches a player as if he’s their friend. Siegel tries to toe the line between laughing at him and feeling his pain, and it’s not entirely successful.

When I felt Paul was getting laughed at by the filmmaker, I wanted to look away. The final 10 minutes of Big Fan are terrific, but by then, we’ve already sat through stereotypically Jersey meatheads with their overly tan wives and a mother talking to her son about masturbation– you know, gags we’ve seen before a hundred times. All of the forced gags and the placement of our hero as the butt of some jokes detaches us from caring about the inner workings of the character. At its best moments, Paul is like Sugar: he’s pursuing his own version of the American dream. He’s failed at the things Sugar searches for, such as a companion and a job that he loves. Yet without these things, Paul still finds happiness in the simplest of pleasures: talking about sports. This brings him his sense of accomplishment, and as his team succeeds, he feels he can be upwardly mobile in the world. Big Fan never fully captures this sentiment, only intermittently getting on base. Sugar keeps its eye on the prize and hits a home run.

Sugar:

Big Fan:

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~ by russellhainline on February 11, 2010.

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