Stay Hungry (June 4/04)
Stay Hungry is a strange, bizarre film that almost defies description. Writer/director Bob Rafelson (working from a novel by Charles Gaines) impatiently careens between genres, imbuing the movie with the sort of reckless storytelling one generally associates with the '70s. As a result, the film has an improvisational, spontaneous feel - greatly assisted by some fantastic performances - but Rafelson takes things too far towards the end, eventually abandoning the more effective elements in his script (ie the three central characters).
The story revolves around a reluctant businessman named Craig Blake (Jeff Bridges), who has been given the unpleasant task of convincing the owner of a small gym to sell his property (Blake's partners want to buy out the entire area and rebuild it). But as Blake begins to get to know some of the regulars at the gym - including a lovable gymnast named Mary Tate (Sally Field) and Joe, an aspiring body builder (Arnold Schwarzenegger) - he finds himself more and more intrigued by this unusual subculture.
There's no mistaking Stay Hungry for anything other than a Bob Rafelson film. Like his most famous work, Five Easy Pieces, Stay Hungry's aimless structure emphasizes characters over plot - and for a while, it's undeniably quite effective. Using his expected freewheeling style, Rafelson does a nice job of establishing this world as more than just a haven for quirky characters. It doesn't hurt that he's cast a trio of fantastic actors in the central roles, with Schwarzenegger receiving an "introducing" credit and Field stepping into the realm of grown-up parts for the first time. But as the film nears its conclusion, Rafelson eschews the intriguing character stuff in favor of oddball antics. There's a sequence toward the end that perfectly exemplifies this, featuring the coked-up owner of the gym attacking Bridges' Craig. Though there's a certain amount of realism to this scene - weights and dumbbells are thrown dangerously close to Bridges - there's nothing here that adds to the overall story (Rafelson presumably felt the need to end the film on a more exciting note, something that just doesn't jibe with everything that came before it).
Because of Rafelson's end-zone hijinks, it's the first half of Stay Hungry that really works. The chemistry between Craig and Mary Tate is intriguing, if somewhat cliched (sophisticated city boy falls for simple country girl; watch as their sensibilities clash!) And Schwarzenegger gives a surprisingly understated performance, perhaps for the only time in his career. Though the stuff involving Craig's friends doesn't really work (what a surprise that they'd look down on Mary Tate), Rafelson does have a few interesting things to say about the class differences.
And hey, if nothing else, the film is worth checking out for the sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a fiddle.