Movie Review (Sundance 2023): ‘Magazine Dreams’ Fails Jonathan Majors
Director: Elijah Bynum
Writer: Elijah Bynum
Stars: Jonathan Majors, Haley Bennett, Harrison Page, Taylour Paige
Synopsis: A Black amateur bodybuilder struggles to find human connection in this exploration of celebrity and violence.
There’s one very good reason to see the drama Magazine Dreams, and that reason is Jonathan Majors, who gives a stunning, complex performance as amateur bodybuilder Killian Maddox, a man dedicated to his profession but totally adrift when it comes to the rest of his life. This rage-filled character brings to mind the kind of antiheroes Robert De Niro played in Raging Bull and especially Jake Gyllenhaal played in Nightcrawler, those with physical transformations that have to be seen to be believed. Majors bulked up for real to a remarkable extent to play this character, and yet it’s the empathy and authenticity he gives to Killian that makes this such a remarkable performance.
Majors, who has been on a roll lately with an acclaimed turn in Devotion and with anticipated performances in the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Creed III, gives the kind of bravura, awards-friendly portrayal of pain and passion that every actor dreams of, but what sadly holds him back from greatness is a movie that meanders when the tension should be escalating and a story that should be wrapping up instead of overstaying its welcome for an additional twenty minutes. Majors is game for anything, as he proves in this movie, but the narrative doesn’t always give him a lot to work with and sometimes even undermines the great acting he’s doing.
This is not to say that Magazine Dreams doesn’t include effective scenes of power. My favorite stretch of the film involves a subplot about a dinner date Killian has with a checkout worker (Haley Bennett) he meets at the grocery store. His asking her out is endearingly awkward, his refusal to do so at first, walking away, then turning around to see if she’s interested. He’s so consumed with perfection in his bodybuilding career that the act of asking a pretty woman on a date seems alien to him; he can’t relate well to other people and struggles finding a solid line of communication.
At the dinner, things go wrong quickly, starting with Killian ordering practically everything on the menu in front of his date, then shouting at her when she’s unaware of who one of his famous bodybuilding idols is. She gets up to go to the bathroom, and when she doesn’t return, the look on Killian’s face is priceless, one that starts as disappointment but then turns into indifference. His table is filled to the brim with plates of food, and upon asking the waitress to box up everything, he changes his mind and decides to order more food instead. In this moment we recognize Killian is incapable of finding a connection with another person and is instead too consumed with his own obsessions to allow anyone else in.
Bodybuilding is the man’s life, after all, and the film takes us through his arduous journey to reach the top, giving us one of his many competitions where he tries to stand out among half a dozen other bodybuilders that appear as stacked as he is. But some of these stunning images only take the narrative so far. In his second feature, writer/director Elijah Bynum (Hot Summer Nights) has all the ingredients of a successful drama, with a talented actor who can draw the audience into an infatuated and disturbed character as Killian, but sadly the story rarely finds a strong rhythm to keep us engaged. As much as I admired the Majors performance, the film is often a difficult sit because, especially in the second half, Bynum splashes the screen with never-ending darkness, anger, resentment, and desolation. There’s so much pain and anguish that eventually we need a relief, one the film fails to give us.
Nightcrawler, one of my favorite films of 2014, dealt with similar themes and pacing and a mega-obsessed character, one played by the also physically-transformed Jake Gyllenhaal, but that film more successfully pulls you through its dour story due to its thriller genre tendencies and the dynamic character relationships, namely between Louis (Gyllenhaal) and his boss Nina (Rene Russo), as well as Louis and his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed). The tension continues to build into the third act as those professional relationships crumble and a harrowing car chase through the streets of L.A. results in a moment of genuine horror. Magazine Dreams, on the other hand, can’t match the hypnotic nature of Dan Gilroy’s propulsive storytelling. Killian’s relationship with his Vietnam veteran grandfather (Harrison Page) doesn’t add much to the story, nor does his encounter with a sex worker played by Taylour Paige.
Worst of all, the third act stretches on and on, the movie at one point feeling like it’s coming to a satisfying conclusion, only to then continue on for another twenty minutes. Bynum is clearly a talented director, with a good visual eye, a strong sense of place, and excellent taste in casting, and Majors is terrific in the role of a lifetime, but Magazine Dreams needed a few more passes at the screenplay stage to come up to the level its brilliant central performance deserves.