Stay Hungry (1976):

Bob Rafelson rediscovers comedy, missing since Head, and the existential wanderings of his hero are enriched; an expansive, scrappy film, the free expression of the energy misplaced in Five Easy Pieces and repressed in The King of Marvin Gardens. Alabama blueblood Jeff Bridges, recently orphaned, mopes around the gardens of his aristocratic clan's old mansion until the pensive dissolves give way to curt dashes as the New Old South crashes into the Old South, the first of the film's many daredevil tonal abruptions -- family is but a disembodied voice, an uncle reminding Bridges of "the comforts of your tradition," yet he's far more interested in real-estate dealing with a trio of greaseballs. The shady trail leads him to the Olympic Spa, the only place resisting foreclosure where a building complex is to be erected; Sally Field runs the front counter, R.G. Armstrong dons wigs and perilously mixes dumbbells with amyl nitrate, Arnold Schwarzenegger aims for the Mr. Universe title, dressed in Batman cowl while pumping iron because it "adds humor to the workout." Bridges soaks in the rich cultural abrasion of the new environment, learning to steal a painting from an office because Field thought it was pretty or to do a moonshine-lubricated jig at the local jamboree (Rafelson's relaxed camera finds Schwarzenegger with the bluegrass batch, his bulk happy and calm at the fiddle). A work of Sturgesian madcap cyclones (Helena Kallianiotes, Robert Englund, Roger E. Mosley, and Joanna Cassidy contribute to a gallery of astonishingly varied physiques), but to Rafelson, as to Dusan Makavejev, the muscles on display are manic, profound signs of a society in transition, alertly and sympathetically observed: "They don't even whistle down there anymore," an old timer says of Birmingham, but the movie sorts through the wacky textures for cultural reconciliation and progressive "hunger" amid corrupting luxuries, with white sheets tossed over the mansion's furniture and butler Scatman Crothers, who's served Bridges' family for five decades, leaving with suit of armor in tow. The perfect bodies poised in mythical silhouette spill into the streets, since to Rafelson, like to many a '70s searcher, it is their imperfections that are interesting. From Charles Gaines' novel. With Kathleen Miller, Fannie Flagg, Woodrow Parfley, and Joe Spinell.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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