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Lots to Love About Fatso

BY JAMES ARNOLD

Fatso is the first movie about America's Real Problem (forget energy, inflation, Iran and Afghanistan). That's how to eat and drink and still stay lean and sexy, not to mention alive. The movie doesn't solve anything, but it's a lot more fun than an hour on an exercise bike.

Dom DeLuise fits like a light bulb in a socket into a part that is probably his best ever, and just in the nick of time. Up to now, nobody has seemed to know how to use him or ask anything from him. But veteran actress Anne Bancroft, writing and directing her-first movie, has liberated this likeable chubby and cherubic, and potentially very talented, comedian, as well as herself. Her story amiably uses their memories of earlier life in a New York Italian setting."

Fun for Food Freaks

While eating, in both its funny and tragic aspects, is the main focus-Fatso is practically the Lost Weekend of compulsive food freaks, and should be seen only after a big meal - the movie is also a tender love story about recognizable, ordinary people who live on a level pretty close to most of us. Some folks in the film are crazy, but nearly all are friendly, nice, huggable (Fatso is the perfect antidote if you've overdosed lately at flicks like Cruising and The Last Married Couple). Deep in her psyche, Bancroft was reaching back into the 1950's for the feeling of movies like Marty, which was a romance of a wallflower and an aging bachelor, nice-guy butcher.

Here DeLuise is a nice-guy bachelor shopkeeper for whom eating has been a lifelong unconscious refuge and ritual, a source of comfort and joy, not simply nourishment, often associated even with family affection and approval. The film's suggestion of the depth of the meaning of food in Dom's life is not only clever and visual, but helps raise it above the level of a series of fat and diet jokes. (An early montage summarizing his youthful experiences with food includes, with remarkable insight, even his First Communion). When DeLuise cooks, handles food, eats and drinks, it's with the grace of a world-class gourmand, not simply an eataholic.

So his familiar, losing struggle with diet has poignancy as well as belly laughs. Gluttony is not funny, really, and the explosions, when Dom falls off the wagon, are handled with care. We're also made painfully aware of the consequences.

Shy Romance

Dom also falls heavily for sweet blonde Lydia (Candice Azzara), the half-Italian, half-Polish shopkeeper, around the block, and their shy but eager romance is delightful, never a putdown. It's full of lovely moments, several performed by DeLuise with almost Chaplinesque charm. E.g., his embarrassed ballet of indecision when she sees him with a loaded hot dog; his delicate removal of street goo from her shoe, then accepting her grateful kiss while he tries to keep his soiled hand out of reach; his clumsy, half-guilty attempt to kiss, at her invitation, the Sacred Heart medal she wears around her neck. There's also a marvelous bit when he's trying to sell a birthday card to a customer, but is so worked up he can't read the doggerel verse without weeping.

Dom, of course, is part of a big raucous ethnic family, sketched in somewhat broadly, especially by Bancroft herself as the tempestuous older sister. (In an over-wrought early scene, she rages at the open casket of a departed cousin for eating himself to death). But the dominant impression is of affection and warmth, in contrast, say, to the horror jobs done on Italian families in films like Saturday Night Fever. The relationship between Dom and his 30ish kid brother (Ron Carey) is, in fact, both funny and humanly terrific - the sort of thing that is ridiculously rare in modern films.

Bazaar Date

Another rarity that turns up in Fatso is religion - not as an issue, but as a given, as part of life, something that permeates the culture, though often in funny ways.

By the end, DeLuise really has us hoping he won't get skinny, and Bancroft lets us know that, fat or not, people should be loved and love themselves. If this message is predictable and obvious the visual finale is wonderfully fresh and ingratiating-a series of portraits showing that while Dom stays fat, he becomes proud poppa of a series of lean and handsome sons. Bravo. You leave with a warm-tummy feeling.

(Funny-sad and offbeat, a mix of tenderness and slapstick; some vulgarity; satisfactory for adults and adolescents).

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