Thinly amusing, “The Strongest Man” stretches a short’s worth of potentially funny ideas to feature length, where they slowly and surely lead nowhere in particular. Pic reps another stab at that school of comedy in which adult losers acting like particularly dweeby 13-year-olds in nonsensical situations is assumed to be automatically hilarious. But that formula generally works only when such characters are actually given funny things to do and say, which “Man” seldom provides. Like most would-be cult comedies, Kenny Riches’ second feature is likely to pick up a few supporters along the fest route, but theatrical and ancillary prospects will be marginal.
The 30-ish bilingual Miami resident known as Beef (Robert Lorie) is a brawny if beer-bellied man of few words who considers himself the strongest in the world — a conviction supported by the mildly ridiculous stunts he performs throughout here. (More genuinely impressive, if too briefly glimpsed, are the tricks Beef performs on his BMX bike.) While he dwells alone in a curiously near-empty apartment, his best friend, Conan (Paul Chamberlain), still lives with his Korean emigre parents (Nancy Fong, David Park), who nag him with understandably belittling comparisons to his successful, confident older brother (Freddie Wong).
The two men work odd construction jobs; Beef also does occasional heavy lifting for neighbor Mrs. Rosen (Lisa Banes), a rich collector of atrocious modern art. He’s friends with her niece Illi (Ashly Burch), who’s just returned after finishing college. But the inarticulate, seemingly muscle-headed Beef continually sabotages any progress on their obvious, newfound mutual attraction.
Beef’s beloved gold-painted bicycle is stolen, at the same time that he and Conan experience difficulties searching for the “spirit animals” they’ve imagined for themselves in a meditation class. These quests provide the barely-there narrative drive, which, unlike the similarly bike-chasing comic odyssey “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” takes them nowhere afield — even Miami itself seems underpopulated and less colorful than usual here.
Beef experiences visions of Yeti-like creatures with glowing red eyes; he gets hired as a club bouncer; and is fired by Mrs. Rosen (who worries she’s too “tragically local” as a romantic interest for Illi). But these and other minor conflicts are offhandedly resolved without ever actually having been developed. While there are stray chuckles, the whole film feels like a joke that forgot to conceive its own punchline.
The game cast has little to work with, given roles that are either underdeveloped or simply caricatured. With his unruly ’70s haircut and porn ‘stache, Miami native Lorie (for whom the pic was written) has moments when he just about makes a distinctive, entertaining character out of a cipherous idea for one; Beef is a sturdy if dented vessel waiting for an actual story to carry. The film’s packaging — d.p. Tom Garner’s assertive widescreen compositions, a soundtrack of good indie rock cuts — feels apt for a brighter, more purposeful movie than the script allows.
Sundance Film Review: 'The Strongest Man'
Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Next), Jan. 25, 2015. Running time: 100 MIN.
A Class Laboratory presentation. Produced by Anthony Pedone, Jesse Brown. Executive producers, Stephanie Ansin, Spencer Stewart, Robert Hewitt Jr., Waine Riches, Martin Brown, Paul Chamberlain, Stan Crook, Joan Crook, Ian Peterson, William Lorie.
Directed, written by Kenny Riches. Camera (color, widescreen), Tom Garner; editor, TJ Nelson; music, Andrew Shew; production designer, Cara Despain; costume designer, Stefanie Del Papa; sound, Nate Whitcomb; sound designer, Nate Hoffman; assistant directors, Oriana Ornithari, Dave Moppert, Mike Woodward.
Robert “Meatball” Lorie, Paul Chamberlain, Ashly Burch, Patrick Fugit, Lisa Banes, David Park, Nancy Fong, Davy Rothbart, Freddie Wong.