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The Strongest Man | Review

Miami Blues: Riches’ Sophomore Effort Back Pedals

StrongestManPosterAt its core, perhaps The Strongest Man could best be described as a character study concerning one man finding his voice and coming into his own. Except, we never really get to learn terribly too much about him, despite an overabundance of omnisciently shared inner thoughts. This sophomore effort of director Kenny Riches attempts to convey an alternative perspective in its depiction of growing up in the US with immigrant parents, at least in what we’re accustomed to in these types of films about adolescent minded adults riding the fine line between fun and annoying. But the film’s tone fluctuates between buddy comedy, immigrant story, classist critique, character odyssey, and ultimately, romance, to the degree where none of these elements end satisfactorily.

Beef (Robert Lorie) works in construction with his best bud Conan (Paul Chamberlain). They’ve been friends since they were youths, with Beef’s family coming from Cuba and Conan’s from South Korea. Conan still lives with his parents while Beef entertains private notions of being the strongest man in the world, a title he dreams of sharing with grandchildren, a phase of life he’d prefer to get to without actually having children. Beef makes a bit of extra dough on the side by hanging gigantic pieces of art for the rich Mrs. Rosen (Lisa Baines), but he prefers spending his time doing tricks on his gold BMX. Mrs. Rosen’s niece, Illi (Ashley Burch), seems to have a crush on the burly man, but he hardly seems to notice. Tragedy strikes when someone steals the prized bike, forcing Beef to take a better look at his surroundings.

Newcomer Robert Lorie, who resembles a beefy version of Vincent Cassel playing Jacques Mesrine, centers a mixed cast of newcomers and seasoned character actors. He’s a likeable screen presence, but he doesn’t always match Riches’ sometimes silly tone, such as a ludicrous chasing down of a chicken reminiscent of a bit from “Orange is the New Black.” It’s an example of too much energy spent on a gag meant to imbue the film with a bit more context, not unlike the sacred gold BMX representing Beef’s lost happiness and glory.

The fateful instant happens nearly a third of the way through the film, and this rippling effect forces Beef to grow as a person, and so on. Only, the growing attraction with Ashly Burch’s Illi is never really in question, while their chemistry is painted in light, nearly inconsequential touches. The same can be said for his friendship with Conan, who seems around as a tangent simply relaying similar experiences as a generation removed from immigrant parents. “Do you dream in English or Spanish?” Conan asks early on in the film. It turns out Beef dreams and thinks in Spanish, one of the film’s more intriguing details concerning his character. But beyond his lofty self-image as ‘the strongest man,’ not much else is revealed about him beyond exposition regarding his ethnicity.

Riches’ depiction of the white, privileged upper class is all broad caricature, with Patrick Fugit appearing as a lispy German yoga instructor. If you’re white and foreign, it’s fashionable. Fugit’s handful of scenes wear thin quickly, as do Lisa Baines’ obnoxious bits concerning her revolving collection of ironic art, with center pieces of a dog pooping and a red neon sign reading “So this is hell.” Though not every ‘slice-of-life’ indie should adhere to formulaic norms, The Strongest Man can’t really be described with any sort of enthusiastic verbiage. Everything is quite alright, cheerio, but on the grand scheme of measurements, it flat lines.

★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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