Heavy (1995): James Mangold’s Debut, Starring Pruitt Taylor Vince

James Mangold’s low-budget indie, Heavy, concerns an outsider, a bald, overweight pizza cook named Victor (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who’s still living with his domineering mother.

When a young woman, Callie (Liv Tyler), takes a waitress job at the tavern, her effect on Victor and all the others is unmistakable. Dolly (Shelley Winters), the tavern’s proprietor, takes to Callie immediately, and so does her shy, homely son, who develops unrequited passion for her, observing her with fascination as she changes into her uniform. But Callie triggers jealousy in Delores (Deborah Harry), a sultry bartender who’s worked for years for Dolly and her late husband, and is now aging none too gracefully. A stunning woman unaware of her beauty–her arrogant boyfriend is partly responsible for her low-esteem–Callie is trying to figure out what to do with her life.

The sad, sexually frustrated Victor, who hates making the pizzas that help keep him overweight, feels secure in being doted upon by his mother. Blinded by her love for him, Dolly is aware that Victor has replaced her husband, but she’s unaware of her crippling effects upon him. When Callie suggests that Victor enroll in a culinary institute, Dolly can’t understand why they should pay money to teach Victor what he already knows.

Observing a dreary upstate New York town, Mangold avoids melodramatic condescension, resisting the temptation of turning the roadhouse into a metaphor for hopelessness. Nothing is predictable about the movie, which observes the marginal lives of its “little people” with empathy, with no pathos or hysteria. Told from a detached perspective, Heavy dignifies the emotions of its characters by refusing to violate the ordinariness of their experience.

Mangold’s compassionate look at Victor’s inner life is a stinging rebuke to the judgmental portrayals of most overweight characters in American films. Fat people are usually seen as riotous goofballs, amiable sidekicks, or pitiable losers; case in point is Anne Bancroft’s Fatso, and practically every film Dom DeLuise, John Candy, or Chris Farley have made. Mangold paints a precise portrait of a loner, without a trace of condescension. Boasting subtlety, Heavy is a restrained but emotionally charged film, running against the grain of both indie and mainstream cinema.

A personal film, Heavy was inspired by Mangold’s trajectory in Hollywood, whose high-point was a one-year contract at Disney that earned him a shared writing credit on the animated Oliver and Company. “My generation had this myth in our heads that you could get in bed with the studios and they would bring you up like a minor league baseball prospect,” Mangold said. “I was 21 when I got this deal at Disney–and this mythical ‘Steven Spielberg in a cubbyhole at Universal’ was in my head.”

Mangold’s concept of Victor was also fueled by an encounter he had with an overweight boy in a Melrose Avenue comic bookstore. The boy wore a T-shirt that said “Fuck You” in iron-on letters on both sides, and he had a baseball hat,, but his had a felt fist with the middle finger raised. Obviously he was seething with rage.

Mangold brings remarkable powers of observation: Victor’s quandary gives way to a larger consideration of the inevitability of change, conveying the illusion of security bred by the comforting routines of everyday life. The downbeat ending defies Hollywood conventions: Callie is not going to seek refuge in Victor’s big arms, and Victor is not going to kill himself in despair. “I just didn’t want to give Victor ‘the girl,’ or a lottery ticket, or some easy solution,” explained Mangold. “I thought I had a satisfying ending–just not a deliriously blissful ending. There had to be a certain level of realism or the film would be a sham.”

Heavy was acclaimed at every festival it played, winning a special jury prize at Sundance. The film quickly sold around the world, but not in the U.S., where it took over a year to get theatrical release.

After Cannes, Heavy was trimmed from 115 to 103 minutes, but, according to Mangold, it’s not the running time that viewers found challenging, it’s the deliberate rhythm. “Americans are so used to fast-pace movies, that they don’t tolerate any indulgence; they perceive it as arrogance.”

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press, paperback 2001).