‘Heavy’: Sensitive Tale of Ordinary Lives
“Heavy” is a small, quiet miracle of a movie in which tenderness, compassion and insight combine to create a tension that yields a quality of perception that’s almost painful to experience.
In his feature debut, writer-director John Mangold brings remarkably sensitive powers of observation to bear upon ordinary people living ordinary lives. Although Mangold’s background is primarily in animation, he draws superb ensemble performances from a cast headed by Pruitt Taylor Vince, Liv Tyler, Shelley Winters and Deborah Harry. (“Heavy” took the grand jury prize for best direction at Sundance in 1995.) What’s more, cinematographer Michael Barrows has given the film a harsh yet rich look of an R.W. Fassbinder film, and for “Heavy” Thurston Moore has created one of the most effective--most mood-supportive--scores heard this year.
When Tyler’s pretty, intelligent Callie takes a waitress job at an Upstate New York tavern, her effect is like the pebble tossed into the still pond. Winters’ Dolly, the tavern’s warm, kindly, proprietor, takes to her immediately, and when Dolly’s son Victor (Vince) sneaks a peek at her while she’s changing into her uniform it’s virtual love at first sight. But Callie instantly triggers jealousy in Harry’s Delores, an attractive but middle-aging bartender who’s worked for Dolly and her late husband for 15 years.
That nothing is truly predictable about “Heavy” makes it especially gratifying. Of course, the shy, near-mute, overweight Victor develops an unrequited passion for the lovely, thoughtful Callie, but his predicament gives way to a far larger consideration of the remorseless inevitability of change and the essential isolation and loneliness of most people’s lives.
What “Heavy” is really about is the illusion of security bred by the comforting routines of daily life. Callie, who’s trying to figure out what to do with her life, has happened upon a group of people deep in a rut. Victor may be a sad, sexually frustrated young man who hates making the pizzas that help keep him overweight, but he feels wonderfully secure in being doted upon by his mother. She, in turn, is aware that in a sense Victor has replaced her late husband, but not the implications of that shift.
She is simply unconscious of her possessiveness and its emotionally crippling effects upon her son. Indeed, when Callie thoughtfully suggests to Victor that he’s such a good cook he ought to enroll in a nearby famed culinary institute, Dolly instantly snaps back, asking why should they pay good money to teach Victor what she believes he already knows.
It’s appropriate to praise how completely natural yet how complete and nuanced are the actors under the direction of Mangold, who wrote them such exceptional roles. Memorable as Paul Newman’s dim, devoted sidekick in “Nobody’s Fool,” Vince here is a figure of grave dignity and vulnerability--"a big ox nobody notices,” in the words of a dying man (David Patrick Kelly in a terrific cameo). Newcomer Tyler, who’s just lit up the screen in “Stealing Beauty,” is a young actress of uncommon beauty, talent and presence.
Dolly is flat-out one of the best roles Shelley Winters has had in recent years, and Winters, approaching her character in an understated way, makes Dolly the film’s emotional core: a strong woman blinded by her love for her son. Harry is perfect as a sultry woman grown sullen over too many men and the passing of time. Also important are Joe Grifasi as a tavern regular in love with Delores and Evan Dando as Callie’s gruff, insensitive lover, an aspiring songwriter. “Heavy” has lost some 10 minutes since Sundance and plays just right.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film has some strong language, mature themes and is too emotionally intense for preteens.
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Pruitt Taylor Vince: Victor
Liv Tyler: Callie
Shelley Winters: Dolly
Deborah Harry: Delores
A CFP presentation. Writer-director James Mangold. Producer Richard Miller. Cinematographer Michael Barrow. Editor Meg Reticker. Costumes Sara Jane Slotnik. Music Thurston Moore. Production designer Michael Shaw. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
* In selected theaters in Los Angeles and Orange County.