The Strongest Man Dir. Kenny Riches

[Filmbuff; 2015]

Styles: comedy, quirk, Miami
Others: Magic City Memoirs, Napoleon Dynamite

Miami is one strange town. I can say this with a shred of authority, having spent the first two decades of my life there. Cinematically, it’s also one of the places that’s hardest to capture, unlike the New Yorks and LAs of the diegetic universe (navel-gaze much, film industry?). In the early days of cinema, it was always a place people were going, never a place they actually were; the Tony Rome sunshine noirs are fun, sure, but Sinatra probably did more interesting things in Miami when the camera wasn’t rolling. For the most part though, the media image of Miami is fixed in time around the 80s Art Deco crime sagas of Brian De Palma’s Scarface and Michael Mann’s pilot episode of Miami Vice. To Miamians, the cultural value of these relics is unquestioned, the way a medieval Roman Catholic felt about the shroud of Turin or a saint’s phalanx bone. In both these cases, though, outsiders used the city as the canvas for their unique stylistic vision — much the way that, around the same time, another pair of foreign artists, Christo and Jean-Claude, wrapped pink fabric around the islands in Biscayne Bay (look it up, it’s pretty awesome). These works brought people’s attention, and probably people themselves, to the city, but they weren’t really a product of the place.

At the very least, it’s refreshing that Kenny Riches’ The Strongest Man looks like a film that distinctly is a product of the place. As a homegrown piece of filmmaking, the film presents a form of Miami-ness that doesn’t usually make it to the screen (with apologies to Kourtney and Khloe’s taking of the town, obviously). I can also vouch a bit for the film’s hyper-locality, as midway through the credits I found out that the costume designer had gone to elementary school with me. The montage scenes, when the camera is sweeping along with its characters in the city, convey the city’s unusual energy. Riches manages to balance the bright colors in these scenes with enough of a dirt to suggest the unique dichotomy of Miami, even creating surreal, Lynchian-style debris monsters with glowing neon eyes to provide a nice visual metaphor. From a visual standpoint alone, Riches deserves attention for the image he presents of the city, at times turning it into a character itself.

Yet the films flaws emerge when its actual characters have to speak and interact. On any given day in Miami, you will experience two separate phenomena: you will see three of the most beautiful people you have ever beheld, and three of the weirdest, most oddly fascinating “in a world completely of their own making” people. Riches’ film definitely tries to capture the latter element of Miami’s human condition, which is a noble undertaking. The film follows a muscular Cuban-American construction worker named Beef (Robert Lorie) and his Korean-American best friend Conan (Paul Chamberlain) as they alternately try to find their spirit animals and Beef’s stolen trick bike. At the same time, Beef attempts to come to terms with his feelings for a wealthy neighbor’s (and part-time employer’s) niece, Illi (Ashley Burch). In choosing these characters, the film seeks to explore some of the stranger class and cultural dynamics of the city. Indeed, Miami is the kind of city where these different worlds could cross without questioning.

However, the film also tries to mine their psyches for emotional depths that probably aren’t there, while at the same time, playing them for their comedic quirks. Beef suffers from outbursts of brooding anger; Conan feels insecure about his status in life; Illi cannot escape her aunt’s patronage and support (though why she can’t never really comes across). Their dialogue often comes across as stilted, creating a low energy vibe that detracts from the visual style of the film. Lorie, who daylights as an artist, brings a lot to the film’s visual style as a physical performer, but throwing him into quirky, screwball type situations often plays to his weaknesses (a film that outwardly references Conan the Barbarian should understand why Arnold rarely speaks in those movies). The characters also over-explain the metaphors that define them without irony: a trophy represents Conan’s need to validate himself, a chair represents Beef’s feelings for Illi, whose own personal voyage back to Miami is represented by a thrift store sweater. Indeed, a German spiritual guru (Patrick Fugit), who at first suggests himself as a target for mockery, actually becomes the spiritual guide for the film. Sincerity may be the trend of the moment, but it needs to be earned.

This is a shame for a film that otherwise gets so much so well in trying to depict Miami’s cinematic identity. Some of the details really are spot on, such as Beef referencing ships that carry stolen bicycles to the Caribbean islands (though it’s a shame the filmmakers didn’t include a shot of this sight). Tonally, Riches never seems to be sure where to go, or maybe wants to go too many different places. Sometimes he seems to want to be Wes Anderson or Jared Hess; other times he seems to want to be David Lynch. He shies away from taking a dark, psycho-spiritual journey, but never quite nails the freewheeling oddballs either. Ultimately, Miami is a city of contradictions: on the one hand, it is the superficial club wasteland most people know, but also a city with a vibrant art scene, a thriving chain of independent bookstores, and multiple arthouse cinemas. The Strongest Man makes a move in the right direction towards finally getting the city right.

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