Sundance 2023: Magazine Dreams, by David Bax
Adam Arkapaw is a shockingly undersung cinematographer, given how widely seen and likely influential some of his work is. On the small screen, he was responsible for the looks of the first seasons of both Top of the Lake and True Detective, two of the biggest auteur-driven miniseries of the 2010s. His feature work may be on less-celebrated titles (Niki Caro‘s McFarland, USA, Derek Cianfrance‘s The Light Between Oceans-both underseen gems in their own right) but is no less accomplished. He continues his streak with Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams, filling each frame with enticingly smeary yet stark textures. Unfortunately, that is the end of the list of nice things I have to say about this movie.
You can often tell a movie is trying too hard to seem like a serious work of art when it refuses to display a sense of humor. Bynum uses heavy metal music to signal that his protagonist, an aspiring bodybuilder named Killian (Jonathan Majors) is intensely driven. That’s slightly ironic (maybe the only bit of irony in the whole movie) since so much metal depends on a kind of kayfabe agreement with its audience that Magazine Dreams doesn’t know well enough to attempt.
Magazine Dreams is one of those movies that only appears to exist in order to burnish its star’s ego by centering his total commitment to transformation. Majors’ muscles are indeed otherworldly but they’re no more an indicator of talent than Steve Carell‘s fake nose in Foxcatcher. It reminds me of what the lead character in Team America: World Police would call, “doing some acting.”
But I’d be willing to bet the movie Bynum had in mind for inspiration was Darren Aronofsky‘s The Wrestler, from the physical punishment right down to the humdrum day job at a grocery store, twerpy boss and all. Perhaps instead he should have looked to Jody Hill‘s Observe and Report, a movie about a dangerously deluded social loser that actually had the good sense to be a comedy.
Okay, let’s end with one more comparison (they’re hard to avoid when discussing a movie this derivative). With its cynical, exploitative wallowing in a dishonest version of misery, Magazine Dreams might just be 2023’s The Whale.