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America The Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments

Nov. 4, The Criterion, New Haven, (203) 498-2500,

Darryl Roberts' latest examination of the ways in which Americans drive themselves crazy with concerns over appearance, gestures toward some major issues with the war on obesity, but in its dogged "everyman" approach it never really makes a case. It's more like a meandering chat, heavy on anecdotal examples, than an argument with evidence.

Roberts is likable on camera and it's fun going around with him, which is a prerequisite for what comes off as a DIY style, with Roberts as a guy who suddenly wakes up to the idea that he's overweight and that this might have consequences for his health. We're with him when he gets the bad news about his blood pressure and atrial fibrillation and as the doc attempts to push pills on him. When Roberts learns a possible side-effect is erectile dysfunction, he opts out. He then commences an odyssey to discover how weight loss can be achieved, weight gain controlled, with some amusing efforts to eat raw.

The film takes what seems to be Roberts' point of view: that weight gain is natural, that one eats food because one likes it, and that getting obsessed about such things is a bit loony. So we meet his friend Candi who once weighed 170 pounds but who now exercises obsessively to stay below 130, or maybe even 125. She looks fine, but that's not the point with Candi, and that is Roberts' point: there is no stopping the possible side-effects of obsession with weight.

We also meet a woman who had bariatric surgery and now, much thinner, complains of a host of ailments; a woman with a severe eating disorder; young teen males, in one of the more appealing segments, who developed borderline eating disorders because of how heavy they once were. He visits with a psychiatrist who defines "diet" as "restrictive eating," but everyone makes choices about what they will eat and what to avoid. Many of us make decisions on the basis of faulty or poorly understood aspects of nutrition. We try to apply a "one size fits all" concept to our bodies when our metabolisms differ widely. The most substantive point of the film is that using Body Mass Index as the magic number that indicates health is inadequate. The segment about an imposed BMI on students in Ohio has a nice "60 Minutes" feel about it.

Not surprisingly, Roberts starts to find collusion between "health experts" and pharmaceutical companies marketing diet pills, and even diet programs like Weight Watchers, but he steps back from doing a Michael Moore number (Moore appears in photos as a successful person who is overweight — though he needn't feel bad, Roberts seems to argue, because Tom Cruise and Matt Damon are also overweight by our new standards).

It's all relative, so Roberts also spends time with a plus-size model, a woman who dances professionally while being "as overweight as I can be," and a half-sister who struggles with BMI as a means to overcome her tendency to miscarriages. It's all anecdotally interesting, but not definitive.

In the end, Roberts lowers his blood pressure and improves his health primarily by exercising, which was the best advice all along. He's not saying "eat, drink, and be merry," but he seems bemused by all the misery associated with the "obesity epidemic" and the standard imposed by not-exactly-disinterested science.