Torturous Bodybuilding Drama Magazine Dreams Wastes a Never-Better Jonathan Majors

Movies Reviews Sundance 2023
Torturous Bodybuilding Drama Magazine Dreams Wastes a Never-Better Jonathan Majors

It’s not uncommon for a single-minded and inelegant movie to leave its star, giving everything they possibly can, out to dry. As Jesse Hassenger noted in reference to Brendan Fraser’s turn in The Whale, transformative and off-putting performances of commitment have been successfully carrying unworthy films to critical acclaim for so long that it’s become a bit of a stereotype. “Sometimes, you give the performance of a career, by turns heartbreaking, searing, gentle and risky, and the movie kind of sucks,” he writes. What’s true for so many of those bad movies, where a suffering character is single-mindedly pushed into pain for our pleasure, is true of Magazine Dreams, Elijah Bynum’s vulgar and tortuous look at a devastatingly sad amateur bodybuilder. Yet, what star Jonathan Majors does with this tragedy is just as virtuosic as any of the perverse pieces of vainglory his movie admires, their weathered posters plastering its walls.

But there’s one movie that Magazine Dreams truly wants to emulate. If Bynum’s debut, Hot Summer Nights, took much of its inspiration from The Virgin Suicides and the Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas), his sophomore feature swerves hard into Taxi Driver. The unrelenting failure and sadness afflicting Killian Maddox (Majors) is just as isolating as Travis Bickle’s; his desire for muscular perfection just as myopically consuming as Bickle’s desire for morally superior vigilantism. His mental health is just as suspect; his eventual dreamy fate is just as unclear. Mirrors, sex workers and guns play major roles. Majors even gives us a brief taste of De Niro’s finger pistol. Bynum isn’t subtle in his—to put it politely—admiration for the Martin Scorsese masterpiece, but his striving drama is just as unflattering a comparison (similar to Joker, another “admirer”) as the meatheads exacerbating Maddox’s body issues.

It’s because Magazine Dreams always feels a step removed from reality, a bit further into the fantastically miserable and a bit further from saying anything about its pet topics. Maddox’s hellish descent—starting with a baseline of “angry, scraping-by, orphaned caretaker of a Vietnam vet grandpa”—relishes in deprivation.

Themes are brushed aside as Magazine Dreams blitzes through its painful gauntlet. It could say something about the crushing social and psychological effects of poverty (or even how it can transport you back in time, stopping you in your tracks as the rest of the world forges forward), but there’s almost nothing to it. Neither is there much examination of the ridiculous amount of racism he faces as a muscular, tall, dark-skinned Black man. Or, say, the perpetuating cycles of violence in Black communities. Or the mega-macho, strong and silent swallowing of emotion that’s pushed as an unquestioned definition of masculinity. Or the suppressed queerness of the objectifying bodybuilding world. Or…anything, really, besides the maximized torment facing Maddox. It’s all namechecked, then passed along, like groceries down the conveyor belt at Maddox’s cashier job.

Maddox can’t just be late for an important competition. That would be too easy. He has to be late for an important competition after being brutally gang-beaten by racists, his collapsing body filmed and posted, while dying of liver tumors and high blood pressure. He can’t just be disappointed by his hulked-out heroes, but victimized by them.

Like its star’s muscles, settling for what’s naturally achievable doesn’t cut it. Narrative PEDs juice the hardship. If the film had a different tone—one couched more inside Maddox’s unreliable perspective rather than one clearly observing from a safe distance—this kicked-while-down cruelty could be ascribed to Maddox’s lonely life and the toxic internet and hobbyist outlets offering him solace. Reassuring him that the world is out to get him. It’d be a perfect fit: Bodybuilding forums are real-life hotbeds of alt-right vitriol, shaped over years to cater to ostracized, obsessed men. But Magazine Dreams rebuffs this avenue, instead using the internet as yet another place that rejects Maddox. Comments on his YouTube videos tell him to kill himself. Call him an incel. Rather than truly radicalize him, or stoke something in his inner world, Maddox absorbs these comments like more blows from a blunt object. The internet truly only exists to exemplify his little-kid mindset; he’s a guy who turns to Google for big, obvious, bummer questions, like “How do you make people like you?”

What we get in terms of character is almost entirely due to the superlative, committed work of Majors. His frighteningly architected body stands alone as a statue honoring actorly transformation. It’s more than perfect, a hyperreal monument to what musculature can be, shot by a drooling camera. There’s no way to fake that, and I’m sure the dedicated eating, lifting and math required to get there put Majors in the right headspace to robotically cram shapeless protein into his maw whenever his character’s mouth has free time.

But it’s not here that Majors puts the rest of Magazine Dreams to shame. His Maddox has a twitchy misanthropy where we watch him calculate interactions before delivering responses. His whole face shifts between the crippling awkwardness blocking him from first-date spontaneity, and spiels so confident it’s like he’s reciting a magazine article he once memorized. His eyes strain and his jaw works overtime as they try to wrestle back his bad impulses and navigate a world not only hostile to his body, but to the workings of his mind. When he fails—as he always fails—Majors unleashes his bulk with terrifying joy. Outbursts so inevitable you can almost feel relief in his actions, far more free-flowing than his day-to-day box-checking. His bloody smile is a crass distillation of the self-destruction he wreaks, but it serves its illustrative purpose.

I’m sure these character beats were in Bynum’s script—along with details I adore, like Maddox obscuring his physique with absurd fashions seemingly Frankensteined from his grandpa’s wardrobe, like ugly polos squeezed over massive hoodies—but they’re made magnetically watchable by Majors, even when designed to make us wince. Otherwise unstomachable moments, like Maddox expositorily narrating his too-familiar fan letters to his bodybuilding idol, are made more delicate in Majors’ hands.

Bynum constructs horrible moments of tension (he’s a solid stylist, knowing when to go long with a tracking shot or switch to a more visceral angle, like watching from a car hood), but they’d be totally contrived without Majors’ dedicated gluttony for the screenplay’s punishment. And even then, there are flourishes he can’t overcome. For every slick camera move that lands in a flashy frame, there’s a truly terrible needledrop. For every exciting transition, there are about three different endings. Really, it’s like Bynum wrote four or five terrible ways to finish his movie and instead of picking one, put them all in back to back. It’s like reading a choose-your-own-adventure book straight through. Perhaps after its festival run, it’ll choose one to stick with. But it’s representative of the script’s “more is more” ethos. Just keep piling it on, no need to look too closely.

At last year’s Sundance, I watched another movie about competitive bodybuilding. It also involved sex work, self-esteem and self-destruction. Gentle leans into the sexism experienced by its heroine, and the intimate satisfaction she derives from her specialty clients that she never gets on stage. It’s tragic and beautiful, and finds hope in a space where superficiality is god. But there is little to no hope here. For some bodybuilders, there’s artistry in the pursuit of perfection. Not for Maddox. It’s angry, an ironically impotent act of holding onto something. That’s what Magazine Dreams feels like. Not just an incredible waste of a spectacular performance, but a film more caught up in ogling tragedy than dealing with it.

Director: Elijah Bynum
Writer: Elijah Bynum
Starring: Jonathan Majors, Haley Bennett, Taylour Paige, Mike O’Hearn, Harrison Page, Harriet Sansom Harris
Release Date: January 20, 2023 (Sundance)

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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