First, the bad news: Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry is a hodgepodge of incompatible elements; the tone is completely out of control, ping-ponging between heavy drama and silly comedy; and Arnold Schwarzenegger gives one of the movie’s most nuanced performances. That said, Stay Hungry is so willfully weird that it merits examination, even if curious viewers aren’t necessarily rewarded with consistent entertainment.
The strange story revolves around Craig Blake (Jeff Bridges), a wealthy young Southerner whose parents died in an accident, leaving him ownership of a small estate in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. The directionless Craig has gotten involved with a cartel of unscrupulous real-estate developers, and he’s been charged with persuading the owner of a local gym to sell his property. Instead of accomplishing his dubious goal, however, Craig becomes enmeshed in the dysfunctional culture of the gym, befriending drunken owner Thor Erickson (R.G. Armstrong), bonding with star bodybuilder Joe Santo (Schwarzenegger), and falling for Santo’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, Mary Tate (Sally Field).
Once all of these characters are introduced, director/co-writer Rafelson wanders somewhat aimlessly through disassociated vignettes. Craig slums with working-class Mary Tate, enjoying carnal bliss at home but ignoring her in public. Craig goes on adventures with Joe, leading to the bizarre scene of humungous Austrian Schwarzenegger visiting a gaggle of backwoods buddies for fiddle practice. (Later in the movie, Schwarzenegger performs a full-on fiddle concert.) Also thrown into the mix is a convoluted subplot about a bodybuilding contest. Some of the bits in Stay Hungry are enjoyably odd, like the sequence of toupee-wearing Thor and his pure-as-driven-snow sidekick (Roger E. Mosley) entertaining a pair of hookers in the gym, but much of the movie is abrasive. For instance, Craig is a shallow son of a bitch, so it’s boring to watch him mistreat the amiable Mary Tate and display his “friend” Joe like a freak.
The slapdash quality of the storyline is exacerbated by Rafelson’s tonal indecision, since he waffles between celebrating and satirizing his characters. The ending is especially sloppy, with various plot threads resolving against a backdrop of half-dressed bodybuilders parading through downtown Birmingham. (At one point, several of them ride atop a city bus, posing and preening in Speedos.) Though ultimately a blip in the careers for most of its participants, Stay Hungry was significant for Schwarzenegger, since it was his first dramatic role in a big-budget movie; combined with his appearance in the documentary Pumping Iron, released the following year, Stay Hungry demonstrated Schwarzenegger’s powerful charisma, setting the stage for his success as an action-movie star.
Stay Hungry: FUNKY