1:39 pm Apr. 4, 201172
When you first meet Joe Cross in Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, he looks about as slick as any other self-made guru and weight-loss expert. Cross spends much of his film stumping for something called the "Reboot juice fast," a detoxifying crash diet that requires participants to consume only home-made juices made from a blend of green vegetables and fruits. He talks with easy confidence and he clearly has his sales pitch down cold.
And yet the more time you spend watching Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, which comes across as a mix of advertisement and earnest documentary, the more you actually become convinced of Cross’ sincerity. He’s a consummate salesman because his concern for would-be converts seems real. Cross anticipates and capably manipulates the skepticism of his audience, knowing well that his proselytizing for a diet of nothing but pureed fruits and veggies will seem gimmicky and implausible. Then again, he’s also more strident than any layperson who just happened to stumble upon an amazing diet could possibly be. His constant need to pitch his audience detracts from the overall case the film is trying to make.
One of the most refreshing things about Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead is that it’s not nearly as manipulative as its title suggests. Cross’ narrative tentatively begins as a personal journey. He relates how he first chose to visit and travel across America for sixty days in order to prove to himself how well he could resist such daunting American cultural institutions as the hamburger and French fries. Cross readily admits that his self-appointed task is pretty insane. He consequently shies away from trying to relate his experiences through video diary entries that sensationalize his weight loss with tears, screaming or any other kind of intense emotional outburst.
Instead, Cross prioritizes two kinds of supporting evidence: clinical explanations provided by nutritionists and his own homespun account of his diet; and talking-head, man-on-the-street footage in which he takes the time to find out from other people why they don’t invest in a healthy diet. The answers he gets in the latter type of footage aren’t surprising or especially original. But they do nicely demonstrate Cross’ humanity, which is what allows him to win converts to his cause in the first place. His subjects often cite weak will power and an outright unwillingness to make such a drastic change as the one Cross proposes.
What he proposes to people, actually, is not miraculous. In Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, dieting is presented, refreshingly, as a difficult chore it is. There is no trick to it. The handful of people who try out the Reboot juice diet do not wonder at how simple it all is, or why they never thought to try it before.
By highlighting the skepticism about his cure and the difficulties or undertaking it, Cross inexpertly but sincerely attempts to address the psychological root of obesity. If only he had the patience to just stick with a handful of his more thoughtful subjects instead of mixing their answers with less-credible, lower-quality responses, the result would have been more compelling.
Understandably, not every everyman can be thoughtful, but Cross seems to have felt obliged to highlight every point of view he could, running the gamut of people’s misconceptions about fasting and dieting.
These interview segments are the foundation of Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, which is essentially a human-interest story that jumps from Cross’ own accomplishments to those of a couple of people who were inspired to follow his example. That's the good part. But Cross spends somewhat more time than he should making the obvious argument that people should be living a healthier lifestyle, rather than on the real people explaining why they aren’t.
So, during his first 60-day fast, we chart his progress with an itemized list of what day of the fast it is, what city and what state Cross is filming in, how much weight he’s lost (both in pounds and kilograms) and what kind of medication he’s taking. It feels jarringly clinical, compared to his simple and direct documentation of what he encountered in the course of pushing his course of action on other people. Those exchanges are the most gripping parts of the movie, listening to Cross grapple with the common view that a juice fast is “pretty extreme.” He counters, on those occasions, by arguing that he was compelled to take equally extreme (if much less effective) measures before the diet, when he was in dangerously bad shape. He stresses the fact that he previously had to take a battery of medications to combat frequent illnesses, including an auto-immune disease that resembles hives.
He does manage to make the case, at least, that undertaking a juice fast was good idea for him (Cross weighed more than 300 pounds when he went on his diet), if it leaves unanswered the substantial question of why people who aren’t morbidly obese should ever do the same.
Is Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead an exemplary real-life story of a crazy, successful salesman who happened to inspire other people to change their lives, or is it a commercial for the Reboot juice fast? Cross tries to make his film a little bit of both, which is a shame.
In Cross' defense, he’s at least addressing the concerns of what he properly understands will be a skeptical audience. If he bit off more than he can chew, maybe, it’s because he knew on some level that he had to.
Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead is playing at the Quad Cinema now through Thursday April 7, 2011.