Magazine Dreams is one of the buzziest titles at this year’s Sundance, largely thanks to a spotlight-commanding performance from budding star Jonathan Majors (who will be playing Kang the Conqueror in the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania). Unfortunately, there isn’t much more to the film than Majors’s undeniably impressive turn.
The movie follows an amateur bodybuilder who, in his obsessive quest for perfection, sacrifices the relationships he has with everyone around him. It’s meant to be a tragic rise and fall from grace, but like so many other movies that have attempted the same narrative (Tár immediately comes to mind), it struggles to figure out why audiences should care.
Bynum’s intention is clearly for Magazine Dreams to be an uncomfortable watch, but it frequently goes beyond that and becomes simply unpleasant. There is quite a bit of repetition in the film until it becomes a barrage of nearly indistinguishable awkward sequences escalating in brutality. A few moments throughout are genuinely memorable and impactful, but after the first act, many viewers will likely become desensitized.
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The length of the movie also becomes a burden. Even though the runtime only clocks in at just over two hours, the oppressively bleak tone and frequent redundancy makes it feel like a lifetime. The film is meant to show this man’s life spiraling out of control, but it’s not the slow burn it needs to be successful, instead feeling like someone turned up the heat halfway through.
What Bynum does succeed in doing is creating a rich, morally complex protagonist. The audience will certainly feel sympathy for him at several points throughout the movie and disgust at others. This tonal whiplash is frequently disarming and what allows Jonathan Majors’s performance to creep under your skin.
Indeed, Majors is pretty extraordinary, so much so that regardless of whether or not you like the movie, you have to admire his commitment. In terms of pure physicality, Majors manages to capture the mannerisms of the hyper-obsessed weightlifter protagonist in such a believable way. And his performance is the perfect amount of unhinged to leave viewers feeling disturbed.
Bynum is arguably even less effective at directing the film, with a visual style that is excessively polished to the point of feeling pretentious. The use of light, particularly in the opening sequence, is borderline obnoxious, as is the framing. The score by Jason Hill is also distractingly overwhelming.
Magazine Dreams holds on by a thread thanks to a committed performance by Jonathan Majors. Elijah Bynum has an interesting character on his hands, and the actor to bring him to life perfectly, but he struggled to find a way to build an effective and satisfying story around him.
Magazine Dreams is playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 19-29 in-person in Park City, UT and January 24-29 online.
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