Throughout the ’80s, Mel Brooks enjoyed a thriving side career as the head of Brooksfilms, which produced The Elephant Man (1980), My Favorite Year (1982), and The Fly (1986). Not every Brooksfilms release clicked, but it was a good run. Among the lesser Brooksfilms offerings was this well-meaning dramedy, the sole feature film written and directed by Brooks’ second wife, actress Anne Bancroft. (The two were married from 1964 to her death in 2005.) Starring occasional Brooks collaborator Dom DeLuise, the picture concerns exactly what the title suggests: a man struggling with his weight. The comedy aspect stems from scenes of indulgence, with the title character and his overweight friends gorging themselves in ridiculous ways, and the dramatic aspect stems from the title character’s efforts to surmount the self-loathing that stifles his ability to make better choices. In its best moments, the picture shares some qualities with the classic character study Marty (1955), another tale of a pudgy New Yorker struggling to believe that he deserves romantic affection. What’s more, Fatso is utterly sincere, regarding its troubled protagonist with empathy instead of judgment, and DeLuise plays the role for pathos rather than cheap laughs.
The bad news is that Bancroft lacks nuance and skill, no surprise given that she’d only directed one short film prior to this project. For instance, it’s overly convenient that Dominick (DeLuise) happens upon the lovely Lydia (Candice Azzara), who overlooks his girth—and the health risks accompanying obesity—because her late father was also heavy. Bancroft’s storytelling comes dangerously close to “I’m okay, you’re okay” platitudes, as if accepting oneself is a reasonable compromise for sustaining unhealthy behavior patterns. It doesn’t help that Fatso largely comprises scenes of people screaming at each other. Bancroft appears as Dominick’s overbearing sister, and her scenes with DeLuise are highly abrasive. So, too, are vignettes with Dominick’s support group, the “Chubby Checkers,” whom Bancroft portrays as repressed maniacs forever on the verge of gluttonous meltdowns. (Though the movie doesn’t judge Dominick, it seems to blithely malign fat people in general.) As a narrative, the picture sorta-kinda works, and DeLuise plays sad scenes effectively. But as a piece of filmmaking, this is highly amateurish stuff.