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Movie review

Reflecting on the supersize pursuit of an American dream

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / June 6, 2008

Very late in "Bigger, Stronger, Faster," a hugely entertaining personal documentary about what steroids mean to American pop culture, director Christopher Bell thinks to ask the simplest question of all: "What's the problem with being a normal guy?"

The film as a whole struggles to provide answers, but at that point Bell just cuts to George C. Scott as "Patton," barking that "America loves a winner and will not tolerate a loser." Sometimes it's as easy as that.

Because "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" views the issue through the filmmaker's own family, it intermingles emotions and facts, clarity and sympathy, in enlightening, mostly useful ways. This is certainly not the documentary on juicing some audiences will want, since it doesn't condemn the use of anabolic steroids outright. Instead, Bell hops over the wall of media outrage and tries to parse the hypocrisy behind it. Why, he wonders, are Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire accused of cheating when our entire culture rewards winning at all costs?

This isn't just theory for the director. In a very funny opening montage, Bell shows the heroes of his early-'80s childhood - Hulk Hogan, Rambo, Arnold Schwarzenegger - and then himself: "a fat, pale kid from Poughkeepsie." Because he and his brothers, Mike (a.k.a. Mad Dog) and Mark (a.k.a. Smelly), bore no resemblance to the ripped gods of professional wrestling, they all remade their bodies lifting weights, starting with a Christmas gift of a Hulkamania workout kit. "By the time I was a senior," says Christopher, "I was one of the strongest kids in the country."

His brothers chased dreams of musclebound glory - both aimed for careers in pro wrestling and came up short - and used steroids as a matter of course. Christopher dabbled and quickly stopped; he just felt it was wrong. That's the dichotomy the movie explores. The director wants to know: Are his brothers crazy or is he?

And so "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" embarks on a merry, fretful trip through the chemical underbelly of American sport. Bell tracks the morphing of baseball players from the scrawny wonderboys of yesteryear to "guys who were jacked," and finds anabolic ground zero in the US-vs-USSR Olympic weightlifting competitions of the late Cold War, when so many athletes on both sides were juicing that one grizzled coach calls it "even steven."

Along the way, the director tours the fallout from the Jose Canseco/Balco revelations, unsuccessfully stalks Governator Schwarzenegger for a comment, wonders why the villainous Soviet boxer in "Rocky IV" was depicted using steroids when Sylvester Stallone was probably on the stuff himself, and demonstrates the change in the male body image by showing how G.I. Joe dolls have beefed up over the years. One startling sequence shows Gregg Valentino, the owner of "the world's biggest biceps" (they're really gross), barely able to hold a baseball bat.

The end result is as surreally entertaining as a Michael Moore film - when steroids pop up at No. 142, below multiple vitamins, on the list of most common reasons for emergency room visits, Bell cuts to a Flintstones ad - while feeling much less pushy and partisan. "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" is occasionally disingenuous (steroids increase aggression in only 5 percent of the population?), but overall the director weaves through the minefield of hypocrisies without blowing himself up.

The doubletalk extends to senators on Capitol Hill, to President George W. Bush (who inveighs against the steroids his Texas Rangers were almost certainly using in the 1990s), and, most sadly, to the filmmaker's own family. Brother Mark continued juicing until he could bench-press 700 pounds but lies about it to the high school kids he coaches in football. Bell's father and mother wonder where they went wrong but cheer wildly when Mark reaches his goal.

Mike Bell, the director's older brother, is an even more tragic figure, his pro wrestling dreams reduced to occasional bouts in Legion halls for $150 a pop. He has weathered hard-drug abuse and suicide attempts, and still lives in fear that he'll end up "an Average Joe." At moments like this, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" reveals that our addiction isn't to anabolic steroids at all but to the fantasies of stardom they only pretend to feed.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster

Directed by: Christopher Bell

Written by: Bell, Alex Buono, Tamsin Rawady

Starring: Bell, Mark Bell, Mike Bell, Hulk Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger

At: Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner

Running time: 107 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (thematic material involving drugs, language, some sexual content and violent images)

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