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A Sundance Cure for the Hellish Box Office Smash of "Paul Blart Mall Cop"

POSTED:

Here I am, just back from a way-better-than-OK Sundance Film Festival, to find that Paul Blart Mall Cop has topped the box office for the second week in a row. Somebody shoot me! This in a week when the Oscar nominees for Best Picture are in wide rotation. So much for the Sundance spirit of nurturing artful storytelling. The appeal of watching Kevin James' bumbling Bart save the mall from robbers (what a concept!) has shot this hackjob comedy to a 10-day box-office total of $64.8 million. All this puts me in denial. Or better yet in affirmation of a terrific movie I saw at Sundance that is the perfect antidote to the dumb cliches of Mall Cop.

The movie is called Big Fan. On the surface it sounds like another variation on the theme of chubby loser against the system. Comedian Patton Oswalt stars as Paul Aufiero, a thirtyish parking attendant who still lives with mom in Staten Island, and spends his time obsessing over his favorite football team, the New York Giants. Talk radio is Paul's outlet for his sports fanaticism. In Hollywood hands, Paul could have been a target for comic ridicule. But the gifted Wrestler screenwriter Robert Siegel, in a directing debut of potent promise, turns Big Fan into something funny, touching and vital without ever resorting to snark or condescension. And Oswalt delivers a portrait in full of a life in which fandom is one man's personal defense against loneliness. This one's a keeper.

A funny sidenote on Oswalt. Before a TV interview I did with Oswalt in Sundance for ABC News Now, the actor made a confession, reminding me of a review I wrote for Rolling Stone of the second X-Men movie. In the 2003 review I quoted fancifully named critic Neill Cumpston (as in cum stain?), whose take on X2, as posted on the Ain't It Cool Web site, spoofed geek addiction to the max.

"X2: X-Men United kicks you in the balls so hard that you puke on your balls and also your ass," wrote Cumpston.

Looking me squarely in the eyes, Oswalt -- who did the voice of Remy the rat in the Pixar blockbuster Ratatouille -- confessed, "I am Neill Cumpston."

It was quite a moment for both of us. After all, I had given Cumpston props for wittily epitomizing the devalued state of film criticism. And here was the man before me, the man who had felt so shortchanged by the first X-Men film that he wrote:

"Remember how the first film had all that story (= for gays) in the first part, and you were like, 'How 'bout some ass-kicking already?' and then finally they got to it? Not this one. It's like, OK, there's the credits, and now here's the ass-kicking, and it starts and doesn't stop and you're all like, 'Pants, meet shit.' "

How do you top that? I guess by giving an outstanding performance in one of the best movies at Sundance '09.

Success, meet Patton.

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Peter Travers

Rolling Stone senior writer Peter Travers has reviewed movies for the magazine for more than 20 years. Send your comments and questions to him here.

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