'The Strongest Man': Sundance Review
Director Kenny Riches' second film stars Robert 'Meatball' Lorie in the title role alongside 'Gone Girl' supporting players Patrick Fugit and Lisa Banes
A broad-shouldered Cuban construction worker with a gold-colored bike and a Korean best friend is the unlikely titular protagonist of The Strongest Man, a Miami-set oddity that’s the second feature from writer-director Kenny Riches (Must Come Down). Bought by the Sundance Channel during the most recent Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered, this is the kind of indie doodle of a movie in which several potentially interesting ideas co-exist but never quite come together and where supporters will call the narrative "freewheeling" while naysayers will insist on "rambling." That said, Riches recently signed with UTA, so he might go on to do bigger things — hopefully at least co-scripted by someone else.
Beef (Robert "Meatball" Lorie) and his colleague and best friend, Conan (Paul Chamberlain), are immigrants from Cuba and Korea, respectively, though Beef calls his friend "Chinaman," which might be either a simple indie quirk or should be taken as an edgy, politically incorrect indication of Beef’s lack of formal education. Whatever the case might be, only "Chinaman" has to come home to an immigrant family that hassles him about his station, mainly because the construction worker isn’t doing half as well as his annoyingly overachieving brother, Jimmy (Freddie Wong).
In a voice-over that’s often more precious than insightful, Beef explains he’s anxious about things such as filth in public restrooms and getting older and how he doesn’t want kids but does want grandkids, so he can tell them about the good old times, when "life was different." This life includes the occasional odd job hanging art for a rich collector, Mrs. Rosen (Lisa Banes), whose niece, Illi (Ashly Burch) Beef might or might not have an eye on, one of the few weak motors of conflict along with the fact that Beef's gold-colored BMX gets stolen.
Illi convinces both Beef and Conan to try yoga with Mrs. Rosen’s German guru, Friedrich or Fred (Patrick Fugit, Banes’ co-star in Gone Girl and a producer on Riches’ first film), and he asks them to find their spirit animal, which logically devolves into them chasing actual animals down the streets of suburban Miami. To further add to the random occurrences, Beef occasionally spots dark monsters with glowing red eyes a la Uncle Boonmee (themselves inspired by cheaply made earlier films and serials).
The narrative here isn’t much more than a loose assembly of occasionally amusing scenes and happenings which only becomes a feature because they happen to a fixed cast of characters. This wouldn’t be that much of a problem if The Strongest Man’s acting was stronger but Lorie, an artist and metalworker, and Chamberlain, a professional chef, struggle with one of the most difficult things to get right for a non-professional actor: deadpan delivery, which requires not only perfect comic timing but also a very precise sense of tone. Indeed, the only one who completely nails this is Fugit (Almost Famous), whose black-clad, sunglasses-wearing healthmeister with a Werner Herzog-accent is an utter delight in all his serious absurdity.
Technically, this very modestly budgeted affair looks fine, with Tom Garner's crystalline camerawork taking full advantage of the sun-drenched Miami locations.
Production companies: Class Laboratory, Film Exchage
Cast: Robert “Meatball” Lorie, Paul Chamberlain, Ashly Burch, Patrick Fugit, Lisa Banes, David Park, Nancy Fong, Davy Rothbart, Freddie Wong
Writer-Director: Kenny Riches
Producers: Anthony Pedone, Jesse Brown
Executive producers: Stephanie Ansin, Spencer Stewart, Waine Riches, Paul Chamberlain, Robert Hewitt Jr.
Director of photography: Tom Garner
Production designer: Cara Despain
Costume designer: Stefanie Del Papa
Editors: T.J. Nelson, Kenny Riches
Music: Andrew Shaw
Sales: XYZ Films
No rating, 100 minutes