Wednesday 15 August 2012

Review: The Bodybuilder and I (2007)

Bodybuilding is mostly seen as a 'sport' for young, hormone charged males, so when a 59-year old lawyer quits his job at a law firm in order to pursue bodybuilding full time, it leaves Bryan Friedman, his filmmaker son, bemused enough to follow him around with a camera crew. Initially it seems his intent is to ridicule his father's eccentric pursuit. The absurdity of old men in skimpy speedos slinking around on stage and making overwrought muscle man poses is self-evident. Indeed, at the national bodybuilding competition which acts as the movie's climax, these geriatric muscle men even don chains and PVC vests. They look for all the world like they've just stepped off a gay pride parade float -- only they are blissfully unaware of this.

If that was all the film were about, it would just be an amusing bit of voyeurism, one that would blend in with all the other gently mocking films on eccentric North American subcultures that have emerged over the last decade. The bodybuilding aspect, however, is incidental, just a byproduct of the father's eccentricity. In the end, all the muscle flexing is just a hook, a framework around which Friedman can explore his troubled relationship with his emotionally distant father. This is what elevates the film beyond simple voyeurism and gives it emotional resonance.

The father is a driven alpha male, a man without an ounce of introspection. Perhaps less. After he's achieved all the trappings of the upper middle class life (mansion, car, high powered job, two marriages, kids), his second marriage collapses. He's derailed emotionally, and, quixotically, goes full-bore into bodybuilding. He takes to it with great gusto and transforms his body in short order, going from couch potato to elderly muscle man in a few short years. In an odd way he gives hope to us all: just look what hard work, determination and an unappetizing diet can do for your physique, even at 59. Before long he's in the top ten of his age group of bodybuilders. By his age the competition has admittedly thinned out a little, but an accomplishment is still an accomplishment.

Of course it is this unusual, muscle flexing career turn that causes his son to do a a double-take. The son, as could be expected, is the opposite of his father: saturated to the gills with introspection to the point of being debilitated. His father's absence has, in some ways, emotionally derailed him since childhood, and like many children from broken homes he's become obsessed with understanding his problem parent. It's hard to build when you haven't got half of your foundation. The film is very successful at bringing home how important the role of both parents are in the healthy emotional development of a child. Fortunately it also suggests that it's never too late to work things out.

The Bodybuilder and I moves at a brisk pace, never dawdles or becomes maudlin, and the emotionally charged subtext is always kept in balance by the lighter bodybuilding elements. In fact, the most uncomfortable moments in the film have nothing to do with awkward emotional bonding and more to do with the skimpy speedos. Even then Larry David's show Curb Your Enthusiasm is far more cringe inducing.

Two and a half Marilimaos out of 5.

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