“How do you get a concussion when you don’t got any fucking brains?”
Paul Aufiero doesn’t go through the motions of a surface-level functioning social life; he begrudges them. He’s 36 years old, unmarried, and uninterested in the prospect, lives at home with his mother with whom he’s in constant bickering conflict, and the entirety of his passion and well-being is contingent on the New York Giants.
So much so, in fact, that when his favorite player, Quantrell Bishop, beats him into a coma as the result of a drunken misunderstanding in a strip club—a strip club Paul and his (apparently only) friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) followed Bishop to—he can’t bring himself to press charges against his assaulter at the risk of dooming his team to a losing season. The first thing he asks when he regains consciousness days after the incident is “How’d we do?”
We first see Paul on the job in a parking garage, listening to the late-night sports talk show he regularly calls into under the moniker “Paul from Staten Island,” frantically constructing the script for his ostensibly ad-libbed nightly call-in. He’s played by Patton Oswalt (“Ratatouille,” “King of Queens”), a brilliant comedian and actor with such an insane command of the English language that, for those familiar with his work, seeing him so believably inhabit a person who says things like “clear the record straight” and “the American Constitution” (spelled “constitusion” in his ratty notebook) is a testament to not only the efficacy of his performance but the accompanying detail-oriented characterization in the script by writer/director Robert Siegel (who also wrote Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”).
In “The Wrestler,” Siegel exhibited the same attention to detail and exacting sense of time, place, and personality that is at the foreground of this picture, albeit with far different dramatic and emotional results.
An early scene in the film has Paul and his mother going to his nephew’s birthday party, at which Paul sits grimacing at the table in a birthday hat in the midst of celebration in a fleeting shot that is a perfect representation of his lot in life.
Family members urge him to seek better employment, but he dismisses their concerns with a defensiveness not unlike an addict in denial, and boils over with resentment when the family gathers around to watch his lawyer brother’s TV spot on the big screen in the living room. In the car ride home, he and his mother have an exchange so ridiculously hostile and funny that its realism is self-justifying.
The escalations of tension between the two throughout the film serve to demarcate several psychological points of no return, as it were, and to facilitate shifts in Paul’s resolve and self-assessment.
The character raises a lot of questions about personal fulfillment and how deeply ingrained a person’s circular, self-damning reasoning has to be before it’s just better to let them be. When everyone around Paul impresses upon him the need for a wife and children and a better job, and he responds over and over with “I don’t want it!”—in a scene of tremendous small-scale power—it’s hard to take sides.
And that’s really what the film is about. The issue of whether or not he should pursue legal action (advocated incessantly by everyone around him) becomes a minor footnote when the real issue of his self-sustained microcosmic existence comes into play.
The film’s navigation of its story is unique in a distinctly independently-funded fashion in that it doesn’t require tidy resolutions or revelations and it doesn’t even really require growth of its protagonist.
Not to mention the way it concludes, which is totally unexpected and refreshing, and emboldens the viewer with a sense of anticipatory renewal.
Paul Aufiero is someone who more or less exists at the margins of cinema and in the passing jibes of stand up comedy. To see someone like him at the epicenter of such serious consideration and interest is refreshing by itself, and the consequences make it all the richer.