Bigger: A great Schwarzenegger portrayal can't save this Joe Weider biopic

By Jim Slotek

Rating: C

It’s appropriate that Bigger, the biopic on body-building pioneers Joe and Ben Weider, begins in Montreal. Much of their story is presented in the prosaic, sepia-toned expositional format we expect from Canadian TV’s Heritage Minutes.

It’s the kind of story that’s almost criminal to film badly. Joe (Tyler Hoechlin) followed a lifelong obsession with drawing the male human form (dismissed in the ‘40s as appealing to homosexuals), and created a bodybuilder’s magazine empire that had an aesthetic that went beyond the mere depiction of strongmen. He and his brother (Dunkirk’s Aneurin Barnard) went on to eclipse the established Mr. Universe contest by creating Mr. Olympia (the launching pad to fame for a certain Arnold Schwarzenegger).

 Tyler Hoechlin, Calum Von Moger and Aneurin Barnard as Joe Weider, Arnold and Ben Weider

Tyler Hoechlin, Calum Von Moger and Aneurin Barnard as Joe Weider, Arnold and Ben Weider

This latter point – the entrance of Schwarzenegger - is where the worst filmmaking judgment comes in. After an hour of being a film you endure rather than enjoy, the character of Arnold enters Bigger, played by Australian body-builder/actor Calum Von Moger, and he is a revelation. Von Moger looks like Schwarzenegger, he nearly matches his build, and he freaking inhabits the role, goofy humour and all.

A plot person like director George Gallo (who wrote Midnight Run and Bad Boys) should have seen how this mesomorphic bolt of energy would impact the film, and changed the shooting order with time-shifts to make “Arnold” part of the story from the beginning. At least it would have grabbed everybody out of the gate and still allowed room to tell the rags-to-riches story, sneering, domineering mother (Nadine Lewington) and all.

None of the other portrayals is nearly that magnetic. Hoechlin seems preoccupied with maintaining whatever-the-hell accent he’s doing as Weider, and is given what amount to speeches on the beauty of the human body through the first half of the movie. The script is unkind to Barnard, who never gets much of a presence (his biggest contribution is his funeral, with which the movie opens and ends). Colton Haynes as Jack Lalanne is another weird choice, in no way evoking the charismatic legendary strongman who’d become TV’s first exercise star.

Thunder Bay’s own Kevin Durand (The Strain, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) has been given the thankless assignment of playing an apparent composite character named Bill Hauk, an anti-Semitic ogre of a publishing and body-building competitor who, I suppose, represents every anti-Semite who ever got in Joe Weider’s way. For what it’s worth, he chews it up like a professional wrestler turned heel.

Julianne Hough (Grease Live!, Dancing With The Stars) does raise the wattage somewhat as Betty Weider, the starlet who Hollywoodized Joe Weider and helped turn him into a muscle magnate. 

But the good in the movie is overwhelmed by its by-the-numbers approach to its story. There’s not enough in Bigger to make a fan out of non-fans of body building, and there’s enough wrong to turn off the real fans.

Bigger. Directed by George Gallo. Starring Tyler Hoechlin, Julianne Hough, Calum Von Moger. Opens Friday, Oct. 12 at the Cineplex Yonge/Dundas in Toronto, at the Forum in Montreal and the International Village in Vancouver.