Stay Hungry is a thoroughly Southern movie that, for a change, is not about race or politics. Jeff Bridges (Hearts of the West, The Last Picture Show) deftly portrays Craig Blake, scion of a prominent Alabama family, who, after the death of his parents, becomes involved in a scheme to buy The Olympic Spa, a Vic Tanny type gym in downtown Birmingham, from its recalcitrant owner so that a high-rise can be erected.
Naive and impressionable, Craig is fascinated by the zany clientele of the gym while retaining his ties with the gentry. Unfortunately, the conflicting social currents make a maelstrom of the plot. Still, a few nuggets survive. On one slow-breathing afternoon, Craig gets smashed on home brew and does a country jig in a fiddlin' circle. He reels in ecstasy, and one gets sky-high watching him. In the first of the several fight scenes a fat bruiser hits him with a tennis racket press and reduces him to paroxysms. This short, understated sequence is like one of those barroom scuffles that seem to come from nowhere.
Patrons of the flaky body shop include Mary Tate Farnsworth (Sally Field, TV's Flying Nun, now grounded), a combustible minikin who zips about with athletic sexiness, and Joe Santo (Arnold Schwarzenegger, a five-time Mr. Universe), the Spa's prime sirloin entrant in a body-building contest. Though Schwarzenegger has had little previous acting experience, he fits in with the pros quite creditably, and his muscular presence is engagingly macho-free. The camera trails him from punishing training to the final unveiling where greased pectorals glisten under honey-red lights and venous biceps expand and contract to swelling orchestration.
Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) is the producer, director and co-author of the script, adapted from a novel by Charles Gaines, coauthor of Pumping Iron, an authoritative work on body building. Rafelson's attention to detail captures Southern traits often missed in other films. The graphic and sometimes witty dialogue is spoken in molasses-smooth accents. And as haughty as the blue bloods are, they have earthy vitality: along with the easy taste of mint juleps sipped on the verandahs of willow-fringed mansions comes the aura of white lightning.
The film's good points are dulled by its ending: a barbell banging rampage followed by a tacked-on happily-ever-after. Though dazed, the viewer is not drowsy.