A movie-of-the-week on steroids and a disservice to its subject.
Titling a movie Bigger takes the kind of confidence that doesn’t consider failure. Director George Gallo and his creative team undoubtedly had other, more dynamic options for their biopic about Joe Weider, the man who founded a bodybuilding empire and introduced the world to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Instead, they opted for a title that could be easily skewered, especially when considering that what Gallo and company have constructed is a movie that sins with schmaltz, a movie-of-the-week on steroids and a disservice to its subject.
Bodybuilding is about sculpture. The human body provides the material while nutrition and exercise are the tools. There are complex, psychological factors that drive people to want to build an armor of flesh and appear superhuman. For Joe Weider (Tyler Hoechlin), life provided two: anti-Semitic bullies and a domineering mother. The movie begins in 2008 at the funeral of Joe’s best friend and business partner, his brother, Ben (Aneurin Barnard). Old Joe (Robert Forster) has summoned a journalist, Michael Steere (DJ Qualls), to this setting to recount the story of his life. Moments later, we are in Montreal during the Great Depression, where Joe tries to please his mother, protect his brother and earn money for the household doing odd jobs around the city. He never achieves the former, but keeps his brother close while making the city his own. While making a delivery to a newsstand, Joe discovers an exercise magazine published by Bill Hauk (Kevin Durand). The magazine inspires Joe to begin his bodybuilding journey, one that will bring him face-to-face with Hauk when they become competitors.
From there, the emerging-titan-of-industry narrative offers the usual peaks and valleys. Joe’s passion for health turns what is essentially a mimeograph operation he runs out of his dining room into a profitable enterprise when he joins forces with New York publisher Roy Hawkins (Tom Arnold). He takes on Hauk in a decades-long battle for publishing supremacy and upsets the bodybuilding establishment when he and Ben create an alternate competition to Mr. Universe called Mr. Olympia. In a bit of foreshadowing as heavy-handed as the film’s score, Joe sketches page after page of an ideal physique he dreams of but can never attain. His passion takes him from East Coast to West and costs him one marriage, but delivers him to the arms of Betty (Julianne Hough), the type of blonde bombshell made for Los Angeles. Supportive, opinionated and smart, she is the ideal spouse, but that’s pro forma for the life of Joe Weider in this movie.
Bigger is unexpectedly funny both by intention and by accident. There is a scene where Betty confronts Joe about his emotionlessness that is so overdramatic one can’t help but laugh, and then, of course, there is the emergence of Schwarzenegger (Calum Von Moger). The Weider Empire had hit hard times by the early ‘70s when Joe sees a picture of Arnold. He places one of his sketches over the image, revealing to all that Arnold’s is the body Joe’s been dreaming about since Montreal. Their destined meeting is made even sweeter because Arnold was rejected by Bill Hauk, Joe’s eternal competitor.
Moger makes a good Arnold, and he and the other actors have fun with the subpar material. If scenery had calories, Durand would be as large as the Blob, his role in the X-Men franchise, for the amount he chews playing cartoon cracker Bill Hauk. But, any charm the film has emanates from Hoechlin, its lead. He’s been putting the DC Cinematic Universe to shame with his small screen star turn as Superman on “Supergirl,” and his ability to hold the screen is on full display here. Burdened with an accent that can be best described as Franco/Brooklyn/Borscht, aging makeup that reaches the level of a well-financed community theater and a mustache that is preposterous in its fakeness, he proves himself an actor worthy of better leads than this.
The world of competitive bodybuilding and the fitness wave that overtook America post-Vietnam are fascinating topics, but Bigger makes them so saccharine that Tom Hanks would have played Weider if the budget was bigger. There is no examination of steroids or the dark world of enhancers required for a body to massively evolve. Like a glossy magazine, the only story here is one of hard work, that extra rep and clean living. An audience would be better served watching Arnold in the ‘70s-era documentary Pumping Iron than viewing this dud.