Score one for the character actors. Paul Newman's chubby, dim sidekick in Nobody's Fool, which was set in a small town in upstate New York, was played endearingly by Pruitt Taylor Vince--one of many times that Vince has shown his reliability in supporting roles. Beautiful Girls, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Mississippi Burning, Angel Heart, Wild at Heart and Jacob's Ladder are a few of the others. With Heavy, another small-scale drama set in small-town New York, Vince deservedly has been made the star.
Heavy is about the love of an overweight, socially inept man for a beautiful younger woman. One might expect fat jokes or, worse, fat jokes played for pathos or heart-tugging sentiment.
Hollywood is never too comfortable with obesity as a serious subject because fatness bumps up against one of American moviedom's few absolutes: The people with whom the audience is asked to identify must look good. Junkies and drunks can be glamorized or demonized or sympathized with because they are acceptably svelte, but fat people onscreen are usually figures of fun, like Oliver Hardy, of revulsion, like Victor Buono or Charles Laughton, or of corrupt authority, like David Huddleston.
When they aren't figures of fun onscreen, fat people are often made into figures of fun offscreen. Marlon Brando has done some superb movie acting since becoming shockingly fat, but all anyone seems to notice is his size. The same was true of Orson Welles. Notice, also, that I've only mentioned men so far--heavy women have an even narrower range of options. Kathy Bates is one of our better film actresses, but she is the exception, and for every Misery, Fried Green Tomatoes or The Late Shift she gets to do, she's had to do three or four drab, forgettable roles in films like Angus.
On the rare occasion that the movies take a stab at the emotional life of a fat person--Anne Bancroft's Fatso with Dom DeLuise, for instance--the approach is typically schmaltzy, especially if the plot deals with the fat person's romantic or sexual yearnings. This is part of what's so surprising and so impressive about Heavy. Despite a central flaw in the script, this film is probably the least condescending drama with an overweight hero I've ever seen.
Vince isn't anything near as obese as Brando or Welles, but his size is sufficient to make him just as unlikely a leading man--in American films, at least--as his character would be an unlikely lover for the woman with whom he's become infatuated. Vince is Victor, a pizza chef in the bar owned by Dolly, his doting single mother (Shelley Winters). Liv Tyler plays Callie, the younger of two waitresses in the bar (Deborah Harry is the older). Poor Victor, almost inevitably, is smitten with the fresh-faced kid at once, but he's not only overweight, he's inarticulate, too. Even so, Callie takes a mild, platonic shine to Victor--his silence is disarmingly sweet, especially when compared to her good-looking, charmless boyfriend (Evan Dando)--and she becomes even more attached to the kind, motherly Dolly.
In the telling, the plot rings with sentiment, but the young writer/director James Mangold does something remarkable: Instead of telling us not to judge a book by its cover, he opens the book and lets us judge for ourselves. Heavy lets us see, with jolting clarity, from Victor's point of view, a view that is profoundly quiet and lonely and at times a little spooky. But it also has a quiescent beauty and sensuousness.
Crossing a bridge, Victor fantasizes that he finds Callie's limp form floating in the shoals of the river below. He drags her to safety and revives her. Later, the same fantasy-Callie, still in a wet dress and scraggly hair, wordlessly comes into Victor's kitchen to eat the breakfast he's prepared for Dolly. This eerily sexy phantom woman of Victor's heart (she's a bit like the woman on the riverbank at the beginning of Carnival of Souls) is somehow a more vibrant presence than the pretty girl he works with at the bar. And his fantasies aren't just the infantile wish to be a hero--they're about her. He senses that, in a greater sense, she needs to be rescued and to be fed, and he's probably right. But he knows he can't do it--he's in as much need as she.
The last thing I expected from Heavy was style, but that's what it has. The plot unfolds in long, wordless sequences or scraps of overheard conversation, at a pace that is leisurely but never loses its subtle tension. Mangold, who has written scripts for Disney films (including Oliver & Company) but has never directed a feature before, is able to depict fairly unhappy characters without being pessimistic. He never drains the spark of life out of their eyes, and he allows for some tentative hope without any patness.
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The small cast is terrific, too. Tyler's earthy freshness continues to enchant enough to overlook her limitations as an actress, the well-cast Winters is fully believable, and Harry's tough old broad is immediately likable without any sugar-coating. Best of all, though, is Vince, whose expressiveness overcomes the script's one significant flaw--the lack of a discernible characterization in the role of Victor, as written.
When Callie assures Victor that he's "a wonderful person" or "a really cool person" (we all know what it means when someone we love starts saying things like that), it's hard to know on what she's basing those opinions, since he's barely spoken to her (or anyone else). Heavy might have gone farther if Mangold could have made Victor a more interesting person--funny or wise or knowledgeable. But fortunately, Vince's performance shrinks this problem. He suggests depths of intelligence and perception in Victor that aren't there in the script. Thanks to Vince, Heavy is indeed heavy, but in the best sense of the term. It has a poetic gravity.
Directed by James Mangold; with Pruitt Taylor Vince, Shelley Winters, Liv Tyler, Deborah Harry, Joe Grifasi and Evan Dando.