‘Strongman’ fascinating in an unpleasant way

  • Thu Jan 7th, 2010 6:44pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

In the world of documentary profiles, I suppose there’s one thing that connects the varied people on view: Unless the movie is unauthorized, they’ve all agreed to allow their lives to be exposed, at length, for the camera. That alone sets them apart from many other folks.

Not hard to guess why Stanley Pleskun agreed. Stanley, who goes by the stage name “Stanless Steel,” wants to be a showbiz success at his particular talent.

That talent is contained in the title of the film about him, “Strongman.” Stan insists he is the strongest man in the world at bending steel; he also lifts trucks off the ground, pounds nails into wood with his fists and works hard at bending a penny with his fingers.

Stan shows up in various New Jersey parking lots and classrooms, and in one unexpected interlude, is sent to London to appear on a British variety show (where he lifts three people standing on a platform).

It is difficult to perceive exactly what Stan hopes to build out of this, since the call for circus strongmen seems to have passed with some previous generation. Not only that, Stan has a curious lack of innate showmanship, the kind of savvy that would allow him to pull off this unlikely profession.

This extends to his wife, Barbara, who introduces her husband at his events. For people who dream of showbiz glory (we learn that Barbara once thought of making it big in modeling) and have presumably absorbed the usual share of TV in their lives, Stan and Barbara are remarkably tone-deaf to the basics of trying to put on some sort of show.

Even his name is wrong: “Stanless Steel” doesn’t scan right, as though someone thought of this basic pun without grasping the nonsensical sound of it.

But the film focuses less on Stan’s occasional gigs than on his daily life with Barbara, his alcoholic brother and Barbara’s shrewish sister, who lives with the couple — an ill-advised move under even the best of circumstances.

“Strongman” director Zachary Levy lays it all out there, from the zany shifts in mood between Stan and Barbara to Stan’s fumbled pep talks at classroom demonstrations (I’m pretty sure I heard him drop the f-bomb during one stunt).

I think Levy likes these people, but he certainly doesn’t protect them from themselves. There’s almost no common sense on display anywhere in this world; everybody seems to be floating in a funk of mutual encouragement and unsupported optimism.

Although “Strongman” is consistently engrossing, it’s not an especially pleasant experience, because of that strange level of denial. You might find yourself wishing the filmmakers would step in and offer a few words of sensible advice to folks who could use some wise counsel.

“Strongman” (three stars)

An engrossing documentary about a New Jersey man convinced he can hit the big time by performing feats of strength. The movie is not especially pleasant, even as it fascinates, because the people in it seem to float in a clueless funk of mutual encouragement and unsupported optimism — when a little common sense would really help.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for language

Showing: Northwest Film Forum