Big Fan, the directorial debut of Robert Siegel, sometime Onion editor and writer of last year's The Wrestler, is a most fascinating and unclassifiable beast. You couldn't in good faith deny that it's a comedy - but a most blanched-out and miserabilist comedy. It is saturated to its bones with sports culture - yet you'd have to work really hard to call it a sports movie. What it is, is a fairly intense character study, and anything else grows out of that.

The big fan of the title is Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), a man in his thirties living with his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz) on Staten Island. There is really only one thing that we need to know about Paul: he loves the New York Giants. This is the totality of his self-definition. For most of the day and most of the year, he is just a fat guy who works an easy but pointless job attending a parking garage pay station, but at night, during football season; then and only then does he step into his true persona, as "Paul from Staten Island", a regular caller on a New York sports radio program, where he issues passionate tirades about the Giants' inevitable success in the next game, positioning himself as the antithesis to a sarcastic Eagles fan calling himself Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport). And that is the only thing that Paul lives for, to spend a few minutes every night doing that one thing to express himself. Well, that, and watch games from the Giants Stadium parking lot with his best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan).

Then, something terrible happens.

A lengthy string of events brings Paul face-to-face with his idol, quarterback Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), and this encounter goes badly for Paul, to the tune of a beating that nearly kills him, and leaves him in the hospital for a week. Bishop is swiftly suspended from the team pending an investigation, and the Giants beginning losing games without their star. NYPD detective Velarde (Matt Servitto) gets to hounding Paul for his story, but Paul fakes amnesia, while trying to deal with what, to him, amounts to a weighty moral question: if he speaks and imprisons his attacker, the Giants will have a losing season. If he says nothing, a guilty man will go free and he will receive nothing except the satisfaction of seeing his team win for the truly gruesome beating he received.

It would not be inaccurate to claim that this is a story of greatly limited scope: its only subject is Paul's fan mentality, and the only questions it considers are those concerning what would cause a man to be this dedicated to a sports team, that he would sacrifice so much of his own personality to the team; what makes a man identify himself solely in terms of the New York Giants? Yet even as Big Fan is thus concerned, it manages to be about much, much more than just Giants fandom, or football fandom, or even really fandom at all. This is ultimately a story about faith, and Paul's crisis of faith, told in tripartite structure: first, we are presented with the size and unmistakable fact of his faith, then we are shown what happens to call that faith into question, and finally - in a weird and powerful final fifteen minutes - we witness what happens to a man after he was dealt with that crisis. I will not say whether or not Paul's faith is intact at the end or not; that is a matter for the viewer who is able to find this movie during its pointlessly small theatrical release, or after its probably low-key DVD release.

Which I would beg all of you to do, if you can manage it; for though Big Fan is not without its problems, it is not a film that's easy to forget about, nor do its questions all answer themselves at once. It is a thing to watch and think about for a long time after, because the issues it raises are not limited just to the crazy people who love sports too much. There's a little bit of Paul in every one of us; if it's not football, there's something else that we all find so important that everything else starts to slip away. Family, work, sex, love; it's watching movies for me, and I expect it's something else for you. Thankfully, very few of us take our pet obsession to the same extent that Paul does - there is no film director that I'd permit to go free if he or she beat me to a pulp - but the Pauline path is buried somewhere in all of us. It was a masterstroke of Siegel's to cast Patton Oswalt in the role: he is a genial man, puffy and unglamorous enough so that we can all fairly easily like him just for being a regular dude; he's also a good enough actor to believably sell us on the idea that Paul would behave in such a desperate, unpleasant way when confronted with his choice between personal fulfillment, or fulfillment as a Giants fan. Moreover, without that first impression we get, that he's basically likable, the dawning realisation of just how fucked-up he is could never have had the same impact.

Like most writers making their directorial debut, Siegel trusts his story and his characters too much to do much behind the camera but stay the hell out of the way. Shot by Ramin Bahrani's customary cinematographer Michael Simmonds, on the RED ONE digital camera, Big Fan is not a lovely film, nor does it have particularly evocative visuals; and this mainly works to the story's advantage, by giving its battered Staten Island locations the truthful feeling of documentary (there is one nice visual touch: the strip club where Bishop beats Paul is lit only with red and blue lights, the Giants' colors). Joshua Trank's editing is silent and unexceptional, serving only to keep us moving through the story without trying to add to it. It is a mostly uninflected film in all manners of its technique, in fact, though this is not to say that it is thus a failure of cinema; I suspect that Siegel made the conscious choice to have as straightforward a style as he could - it's rather like Darren Aronofsky's approach to The Wrestler, in fact - because this is a film, after all, about the most regular kind of person imaginable: a New York sports fan. A regular kind of visual language is thus appropriate.

In my heart, though, I must admit that I respect and admire Big Fan without really loving it; it has a certain pre-meditated chilliness that works for an intellectual exercise but ultimately keeps it stalled at the level of clinical analysis of a certain mindset. That's not an invalid way to make a film, but I tend to suspect that Big Fan is a movie better in the discussion than the viewing. Still, what a discussion!