Written and Directed: Bryan Friedman
86 min. (Documentary)
To an outsider, the world of men's bodybuilding can appear ludicrous. Bryan Friedman certainly feels that way at the start of his documentary The Bodybuilder and I. There's no mistaking his contempt as he watches his father, Bill, practice posing to John Williams' Superman theme (1978). But in case we somehow miss Bryan's slack-jawed stare, his narration is equally blunt: "I think my father looks completely ridiculous."
Of course, Bryan also despises his father.
But at the start of The Bodybuilder and I, Bryan's relationship with his own long-time girlfriend has ended, and he's worried that he's inherited his father's bad habits. So he sets out to get to know his father better—and, this being the 21st century, he decides to record that process.
Although the heart of The Bodybuilder and I concerns Bryan's attempt to forge a relationship with his father, it tells that story against the backdrop of Bill's bodybuilding efforts. For it turns out that, some years before the start of the film, Bill quit his job at a prestigious law firm, sold his mansion, and began working out "all the time." He ultimately took first place in the Grandmaster division (for athletes 50 to 59 years old) at the 2006 FAME / WNSO bodybuilding championships, but fell to third place the next year. Now at age 59, Bill is hoping to recapture the title.
As a the story of a father and son, The Bodybuilder and I is small but entertaining. The stakes (will these two men be able to forge any kind of relationship?) are relatively low; there's no life-or-death conflict going on here. But the film still satisfies. The pace is brisk, and both men are very human. And while there are no big cinematic moments, their relationship develops in subtle yet pronounced fashion.
That being said, I have to admit that my enjoyment of the father-and-son aspects of the story likely stems in no small part from my pre-existing interest in the bodybuilding context. And in The Bodybuilder and I, the two go hand-in-hand. At the start of the film, Bryan is instinctively contemptuous of both his father and bodybuilding. But then he spends time really talking to Bill, perhaps for the first time in either of their lives; as a result, he comes to better understand, and perhaps even accept, his father. Similarly, as Bryan investigates his father's passion for bodybuilding, he comes to better understand the sport. He may still think bodybuilding shows are rather peculiar displays, but he also becomes emotionally invested in his father's competition. His father has become a man who cares about bodybuilding; to understand his father, Bryan has to try to understand the obsession as well.
Indeed, I suspect that The Bodybuilder and I would be a great way for someone already interested in bodybuilding to introduce the sport to a newcomer. It is the rare film with a significant bodybuilding component that is accessible to people outside the subculture while not belittling it. Because Bryan is initially so skeptical, a non-bodybuilder can relate to his bewilderment, and share Bryan's journey towards acceptance. In the end, everyone will have seen a worthwhile human interest story, and people outside the sport may come to understand bodybuilding a little bit better as well.