Written & Directed by Anne Bancroft
In 1980, Mel Brooks started his own production company, Brooksfilm. Under this umbrella, he would produce pictures like The Elephant Man, The Fly, and many of his own films like Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. The very first movie released from Brooksfilm would be Fatso, the directorial debut of Brooks’s wife, Anne Bancroft. Despite her very Anglo sounding name, Bancroft was really Anna Maria Louisa Italiano, and so her film is reflective of her very traditional Italian upbringing in New York City. Accurately, we see the toxic effect of a culture so centered around consumption using food to soothe anxiety and stress, while never tackling the underlying issues. The result is an incredibly mixed bag of tonal inconsistency and a lack of a clear point of view on the characters and themes.
Dominic DiNapoli (Dom DeLuise) is the middle child and firstborn son of an Italian-American family in New York City. He lives in the upstairs apartment of his older sister Antoinette’s house (Anne Bancroft) with their little brother Frank (Ron Carey). Their cousin Sal has died from obesity at the age of 39, which has led to Antoin harping on Dom to do something about his own weight and eating habits. The siblings work out of a stationery store; their parents left them, and Dom meets their new neighbor, Lydia, who has opened up an antique store. He’s absolutely smitten but finds he can’t deal with the anxiety and apprehension he feels when attempting to ask her out. Dom joins Chubby Checkers, a play on Weight Watchers, but finds his sponsors seem to possess as weak a will as himself.
I applaud Bancroft for attempting to make a film about weight and food in 1980, something that you don’t see tackled too often in popular media. I think our consumption culture doesn’t want to dissuade people from eating more than they should, so advertisers balk at these sorts of pictures. In Roger Ebert’s review of Fatso, he noted that obesity is only presented in one of two ways: comedic or tragic. He goes on to note, and I agree that Bancroft refuses to come down on either side, and it does not result in a better picture. Instead, the movie wades through a thematic murk, unable to pinpoint what exactly it is trying to say.
There are great moments from Dom DeLuise, especially. He was always a fantastic comedic supporting actor, and I think we see hints of what he could have done with good dramatic material. There is one scene where he and his sponsors get lost in talking about food only to tear through the kitchen late into the night gorging themselves. In the aftermath, DeLuise does a great job of playing a realistic type of shame overweight people feel in the wake of a binge. You kick yourself about eating all those things that aren’t good for you, but at the moment, they were such comfort from the other stresses of modern life. This is the one area where the movie gets things right, showing how fat people feel when the guilt sets in, knowing that you’ll likely do it again.
Fatso came out at a time when dietary health was just developing beyond a very rudimentary sense, likely less confusing then than now with Atkins, Keto, and all other sorts of diets continually ebbing and flowing as trends. After consulting with the dietician at Chubby Checkers, Dom is told he should only eat broiled chicken and kale, which he tries to but is slowly seduced by a fresh lasagna. Fatso touches on the intense discipline needed to break any addiction when your brain has become so used to the dopamine rush of your drug of choice. The film doesn’t ever differentiate between being fat and still healthy, but that’s mostly due to how muddled its message becomes the further we get into the picture.
Bancroft never directed another feature after this one. I suspect she just didn’t have the drive the serve as a director when she would rather be acting. I would love to have seen what she could have done after a few more movies, but she would have needed to move away from a very sitcom style of storytelling that we see here. Or, it would have been interesting to see her develop a show in the 1980s through Brooksfilm, likely something a bit more thoughtful than the regularly banal fare network television offered up. Fatso is not a movie I suspect will be on anyone’s top ten lists, but it is worth watching both to see what Bancroft and DeLuise could do.