A moral inquiry into steroid use
by Jason Blair
BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER*: Directed by Chris Bell. Written by Chris Bell, Alexander Buono and Tamsin Rawady. Cinematography, Alexander Buono. Music, Dave Porter. Magnolia Pictures, 2007. PG-13. 105 minutes.
|Gregg Valentino in Bigger, Stronger, Faster*|
If nothing else, Bigger, Stronger, Faster* contains one of the most awkward family dinners ever served, more awkward even than the mealtime misery in Titus or Ordinary People. In the scene, which lasts only a few moments, Chris Bell, the writer and director of Bigger, confesses to his parents he tried steroids during a brief period in college. His mother, who considers him the delicate runt of her three sons, is aghast. Meanwhile, flanking Bell are his brothers Smelly and Mad Dog, two hulking mountains of muscle who’ve been taking steroids in secret for years. The moment is almost Shakespearean in complexity. Is this a betrayal, a simple confession or the nudge his brothers need to purge? If you believe, as I do, that mothers know everything — far more than they’re able to admit to themselves — it’s a painful scene of not one, but two elephants in the room. Bell’s brothers, for their part, are shocked into silence.
The comparisons to Shakespeare end there. You won’t find much that coheres in Bigger, a wandering if well-meaning account of a trio of meatheads from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. It’s probably best described as a Michael Moorestyle film in the vein of Roger and Me — except that, in the case of Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, Roger is the entire steroid industry. It’s a big field Bell is playing in, and we don’t always know where he stands. A likable if impressionable guy, Bell is against steroids; then he isn’t; then finally, in a fit of wisdom, he realizes that steroids aren’t really the point. Itinerant in its investigations and fractured in feel, Bigger tends to succeed when it approaches steroids indirectly, such as during a hilarious trip to the supplement store — our modern-day purveyors of snake oil — or the segment on culturally acceptable stimulants, including Adderall (high school students), beta blockers (symphony musicians), amphetamines (fighter pilots) and liquid Viagra (porn stars). It’s certainly food for thought as I enhance this review with double-strong coffee.
Like Michael Moore, Bell can be his own worst enemy, from the way his presence de-focuses the picture, his narration bluntly steering your opinions toward his own, to the “gotcha” moments with Carl Lewis and Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif). Give him credit: Bell doesn’t tenderfoot around. Note his stumblebum line of inquiry with the grieving father of Taylor Hooten, the superb Plano, Texas, athlete whose suicide after quitting steroids prompted his father to testify before Congress. (The data on suicide and steroids is disputed.) Nor does he relent during interrogations of his own family, a series of investigations from which even his mother can’t escape. Yet it’s Bell’s mother who finally rescues the film by bringing the topic back to her sons’ self-image, as opposed to the external or societal pressures they routinely cite. At its best, Bigger, Stronger, Faster* is asking, What is cheating? How do we reconcile our obsession with being the best with the means we use to get there? More often than not, however, Bigger is too broad in its indictments, putting Bell’s original theme — his role as a non-user in a family of users — in harm’s way.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster* opens Friday, June 27, at the Bijou.