Over the years I had forgotten that Anne Bancroft was Italian-American: born Anna Maria Italiano, in the Bronx in 1931. Her performance in "Fatso" as the Italian-American sister of a compulsive eater played by Dom DeLuise, constitutes an unwelcome exhibitionistic reminder.
Neither the art of the cinema nor Bancroft's career has been enriched by this tardy reversion to a hysterical ethnic stereotype. The word "self-indulgent" applies literally in this case, because "Fatso" is the first feature Anne Bancroft has written and directed.
"Fatso" is raggedly directed at best, but this inconvenience might be tolerated under the general dispensation covering all first features. The writing is inexcusable. In fact, it's impossible to believe that "Fatso" was ever adequately written. The material has no purposeful dramatic shape or design. It's a baggy script, full of scenes that merely assault you and then poop out.
Frightened by the sudden death of an obese pal, shopkeeper Dom DiNapoli tries to go on a diet, only to relapse immediately. Attracted to a blond shopkeeper (Candy Azzarra) around the corner, he tries again -- but weakens when she doesn't answer his calls. When it turns out that she hasn't abandoned him after all, Dom feels greatly relieved.
The gluttony which looms as a degrading and even lethal threat to the tubby hero during most of the film suddenly turns into a condition he and everyone else can live with at the denouement, accommodating an incongruous happy ending. If the alleged problem isn't such a problem after all what was all the weeping and wailing and hitting and shouting and ranting and raving about?
Bancroft has an ear for the speech patterns of her characters, located on Bleecker Street, and their argumentative family and social settings no doubt reflect some accurate observation. Bancroft, however, fails to organize this raw material in a dramatically coherent way. She exploits it only as far as actors might in a workshop exercise, or as John Cassavetes does; it becomes a pretext for calisthenics and competition. More often than not a "scene" in 'Fatso" means a shouting match resolved by a tearful reconciliation. This orgiastic process is assumed to be purgative and revealing. In "Fatso" it's merely noisy and trite.
Bancroft is obviously the real over-indulger in "Fatso." Her shrieking, face-contorting, eye-bulging antics make it appear probably that the naggy older sister will perish from high blood pressure long before her pudgy baby brother eats himself into a premature grave. The psychology and perils of overeating are side issues in "Fatso," which seems more a reflection of Bancroft's anxiety and indecision.
Dom's weakness is traced back to infancy, when his mother lifts him to her breast to stop his crying.Bancroft's logic grows a trifle wacky, considering the psychological and nutritional value of nursing, but in rapid succession this infant is depicted evolving into a boy who is comforted with pastries whenever he's unhappy and finally a man who relies on rich food to soothe his hurts.
A respectable movie, serious or comic or something of both, might be written about this compulsion. Bancroft doesn't so much explore the theme as create insurmountable obstacles. For one thing, DeLuise is urged to blubber long and hard. (A more appropriate title for the film might be "Crybaby" or "Whiners.") And he becomes so instantly unattractive when he screws up his mug and commences to whimper that you want to see him stop. If food is what it takes, then by all means shut him up with the handiest morsel.
DeLuise is capable of brilliant work. In "The End" he gave one of the great comic performances of recent years as a Polish-American schizo called Marlon Borunki whose compulsions included tormenting himself with Polish jokes. On that occasion DeLuise profited from a screenplay (by Jerry Belson) that set a distinctive sickly humorous tone and maintained it expertly. In Burt Reynolds he also enjoyed a directing-acting partner who went out of his way to let the character of loony Marlon play effectively.
Lurching between the mawkish and facetious and overdoing both, Bancroft never comes close to establishing a confident tone or playing rhythm. It's safest just to laugh out of fatigue and embarrassment at the aggressive messiness of it all.
One trembles to imagine the commotion that must engulf the Mel Brooks residence when he and Bancroft have a spat.