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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Fatso

“Dumbo” also new to Blu-Ray this week.

Anne Bancroft, revered actress, wife of comedy legend Mel Brooks, and mother of author Max Brooks, has one feature film credit as writer and as director. The name of that film, in both cases, is a superb movie from 1980 called “Fatso.” In spite of the superficial flippancy of the title, this is a movie that dives deep and has a very well written central character, Dominick DiNapoli, played by Dom DeLuise.

Right off the bat we know we’re in excellent hands with Bancroft as a montage of Dom’s upbringing plays under the credits. We immediately see the psychological underpinnings of what would later become an obsessive-compulsive eating disorder for Dom, as his mother medicates Dom with food any time there is stress in his life. This causes him to relate food with happiness and to binge eat whenever unhappy.

There is no better excuse for eating while unhappy than the death of a loved one, and once the action of “Fatso” moves to present day, we’re at the funeral of Sal, Dom’s cousin and a man so obese that an oversize casket had to be used to bury him. In the hands of Bancroft’s husband, Mel Brooks, this scenario could have lent itself to some dark humor. Here, Bancroft plays it straight and captures the reality of the situation. The grief and agony in the scene are heartbreaking and true to life. The way the characters on screen act and the things they say hit close to home. Bancroft does not give over to frivolity in any way, particularly when the character she plays, Dom’s sister Antoinette, comes to the funeral. The emotions are raw and honest. Bancroft is a woman, both as an actress and a director, who has experienced life and knows how to access the pain of seeing loved ones pass on. She emotionally bears it all and the movie benefits from it.

The opening scenes clearly establish that, in spite of being directed by the wife of a well-respected comedian and starring a very funny man, “Fatso” is not a comedy. It’s also not a drab movie by any means, and there are some moments that elicit some chuckles, but the movie tackles a very serious subject in a very straightforward way. It tends to get billed under the subcategory of romantic comedy, but that’s not right. Yes, there is a romance in the movie after new single lady in the neighborhood Lydia (Candice Azzara) moves in and hits it off with Dom. However, the movie slowly builds to Lydia and Dom having their initial meet cute, and it doesn’t happen until about forty minutes in to this ninety-three minute movie. The main crux of the movie centers around Dom, the cautionary tale that is cousin Sal that prompts him to change his life, and his relationship with his caring yet overbearing sister Antoinette and his younger brother Frankie (Ron Carey).

One of the more interesting aspects of “Fatso,” from a modern perspective, is the casting of DeLuise as a fat man. In modern society, he would be considered a bit chubby, or stocky, with a full moon face and extra flab around the mid-section. But fat? No way—not by the 2019 definition of the word. “Fatso” serves as a time capsule that shows us how far our fitness has degraded as a society. People in 1980 were, generally, so svelte and fit that someone with a few extra pounds like DeLuise was considered fat. Nowadays, there are overweight and obese people who struggle to lose weight with the goal of looking like DeLuise. It’s amazing to consider.

Fatso2

Now let’s talk about the title: “Fatso.” The more thin-skinned, victim-oriented, whiny, crybaby types in today’s society will, I am sure, regard it as problematic. They’ll more than likely accuse the movie of “fat shaming” without even watching it. Grow up. Part of the reason for the aforementioned degradation of fitness in society is the detachment from reality that comes with not facing issues head on and failing to call them what they are. One of the best scenes in the movie has a friendly neighborhood woman, Mrs. Goodman (Estelle Reiner), taking Dom to a meeting of a weight loss group called Chubby Checkers. No, nothing to do with the singer—they “check” on overweight group members and support them through their cravings. At this meeting, everyone in the room stands up and declares that they are fat. They repeat it over and over and over, as loud as they can. This is the crucial first step in getting help: Admitting there is a problem. Not only admitting it, but calling it out directly for what it is. Doing this takes bravery and inner strength—the opposite of ignoring the problem and hiding from it like a coward. The weak-willed body positive types in our modern culture could take a lesson from this movie and start making changes right now.

With “Fatso,” Anne Bancroft crafted an amazing portrait of a man struggling with an over-eating disorder. Many of the struggles, trials, and tribulations of having this mental illness, as well as the physical ramifications of it, are tackled. It’s not an easy subject, but Bancroft makes it palpable and entertaining by eliciting great performances, based off of her expertly written script. It’s fun to speculate what she would have done had she continued writing and directing. Little did she know that she created a masterpiece that only gained more relevance as time went on. Buy it.

Also New This Week

Dumbo

Is there a hidden message in “Dumbo,” Disney’s live-action remake of their animated classic? Not to get too conspiratorial, but it is interesting to me that the villain in a Disney movie is a wealthy man who owns a popular amusement park that has different sections with various themes in it. The man, V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), puts on a pleasant and inviting face at first, then reveals himself to be cruel and heartless. Is Disney trying, in some sneaky and subverted way, to “out” Uncle Walt? If so, it’s not subtle, as I couldn’t help but pick up on it. If not, it is an odd choice to have this villain and his park be so relatable to Walt Disney and his park.

“Dumbo,” about the floppy-eared flying elephant, has always been one of Disney’s stronger tug at the heartstrings type stories, rivaled only by “Bambi.” However, since the animals don’t talk in this Tim Burton directed update, the movie is told through the eyes of the human players, most notably circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito, an actor who never fails to make me laugh), one-armed World War I vet Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), his daughter Milly (Nico Parker), and son Joe (Finley Hobbins). If you’re asking “Where’s their mother?” then you haven’t seen many Disney movies.

As someone old enough to remember 1992, when “Batman Returns” was a big hit, I got a nostalgic kick out of seeing Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito together again in a Tim Burton movie. Extra nostalgia points would have been given if Michelle Pfeiffer made her way into the movie somehow, but that’s all right. Going back further in my youth, I remember watching the animated “Dumbo” movie many times. I have fond memories of the storks from the beginning, Dumbo’s fire act with the clowns, and the trippy “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene. This version pays homages to all of those moments, and others, in its own way, and the fan service is welcome. I would have been disappointed if there wasn’t at least a few nods to the original movie.

It’s no secret that the live action remakes of Disney’s classics have been hit or miss. The great news about “Dumbo” is that it does a good job of re-telling the story in its own way while still being respectful to the original movie. Whether or not it’s respectful to Walt Disney is up for debate, depending on how much you want to read between the lines. Rent it.

More New Releases: “The New York Ripper,” this decent 1982 movie from notoriously inconsistent director Lucio Fulci gets a three-disc limited edition 4K remaster release today, and is worth watching if you can get past the fact that the killer talks like a duck (seriously); “The Spanish Prisoner,” David Mamet’s brilliant 1997 movie about con men and industrial espionage; and “Gaslight,” the movie from which the pop-culture term is derived, about a man playing cruel tricks with his wife’s sanity, starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotton, Dame May Whitty, and Angela Lansbury.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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