HEAVY (1995, US release 1996) *** 1/2
Most people have forgotten this. James Mangold probably never heard of it, yet his "Heavy" fits that category well. A first feature yet a true original, it was rightly awarded the Grand Jury Prize for Best Direction at the Sundance Film Festival in early 1995. A good guess of why it was released in the U. K. in 1995 but had to wait for U. S. distribution until past mid-1996, is that this a maverick work, serious, non-Hollywoodish and not catering to immature audiences.
Set in upstate New York in and around a roadhouse, the film has few sets and even fewer characters. The tavern is named "Pete and Dolly's" after the long-deceased Pete and his widow (Shelley Winters) who runs the place. The sign ought to have changed to "Dolly's, " but then time stands still in this story. Regulars come and go as the diner also seems isolated in space. We guess that it is near a town, but except for the time when a hospital comes into the picture, "P & D" might as well be miles from any urban agglomeration.
Molly's son, the thirtysomething Victor, is severely balding, heavy (like "big" an euphemism for "fat"), 100 percent shy and 99 percent silent. Not reserved, reticent, laconic. Not romantically taciturn. Just silent. In the entire movie he utters just a few words, and when, under stress, he does speak out, he breaks his record with two sentences. That's near the end when he tells Delores "You don't have to be nice, only nicer" "Or what, Victor?" "I'll fire you. " In a less restrained movie you might feel like applauding.
The causes for this are not made known. One facile explanation goes that Dolly is an overbearing mother --yet we don't see excessive control by her, while her love for Victor is fairly obvious. There must have been some sympathy for the heavy Victor character by Shelley Winters who went from slim to. . . well, heavy. The Mama's Boy syndrome was much clearer in "Only The Lonely (1991)" a fine film where a Chicago policeman (the late, lamented, hefty John Candy) falls in love.
The root of the trouble is more likely that Victor's poundage --tough the man is far from a monster of obesity --weighs heavy on his mind, especially as he can't help eating high-fat and junk foods. With typical restraint, the film does not make a big show of this. But then, to argue with myself, it is also clear that overeating can be a symptom of other problems -- so we're back to square one.
In the meantime we might wonder at the increasing number of recent movies that deal, directly or not, with food and sometimes with the exclusively American problem of obesity. Let me only say that "Heavy" is a million times preferable to "Thinner. "
The film opens with Molly hiring pretty Callie as a new waitress, to the silent jealousy of Delores, the older barmaid and only other employee. She has been around the block before, semi-flirts with elbow-bending Leo, the most regular of regulars, ever-present on his bar stool. Delores just might have views of permanency also with Victor. The un-cliched Delores, warts and all like Molly, comes through as likable.
Callie is sweet, natural, none too talkative. He has an immediate, silent crush on her and becomes even more conscious of his weight. The rapport between the two, almost wordless, is immediate. But when, at closing time, Callie declares :"My boyfriend is waiting, " you can sense the sky falling on Chicken Little.
There is little action and plot --as usually understood -- so that the developments should not be divulged here. The film is, above all, one of original, quiet yet minute observation of characters and relationships, notably Victor's. It may, for some viewers, feel a bit heavy and in need of some pruning, but on second thought, the same viewers might realize that the length (not excessive by today's standards) allows the movie to develop, so that several poignant, even heart-breaking passages (Victor's mostly) can affect us as they do. Mind you, for the little that is happening, a lot is happening too. What I mean by this paradox will be understood by a sensitive public.
Lest one get the wrong idea, note that the beauty of "Heavy" is in its details. The film is under the twin signs of naturalism and minimalism in everything: script, direction, sets, the excellent photography and editing, the music that does not obtrude and does the right thing at the right moments. But naturalism does not preclude some very good scenes of visions by Victor, including his first kiss with Callie -- as a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. And minimalism does away with elaborations of unnecessary sights, such as details about the bar's customers, or the guitar-strumming, singing Jeff, Callie's garage mechanic boyfriend who is played by a member of the band "The Lemonheads. "
It came as no surprise to learn that 32-year old James Mangold is the son of well-known painters, that among his earlier works was a documentary about his mother, and that his father is a minimalist artist.
Mr. Mangold has made no compromises. In its sympathetic but un-gooey attitudes, the movie avoids the obviousness of melodrama, replaces audience-pleasing but dishonest twists with real life (there is no closure, for example), finds perfect interpreters in its cast.