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Muscle men unbound

'Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" (the asterisk refers to the movie's subtitle, "The Side Effects of Being American") is part documentary expose, part family confessional, part visual essay on the reluctant embrace of cynicism, all told in the first person by the movie's Kevin James-looking filmmaker, Christopher Bell.

As a kid, the short, pudgy Bell idolized '80s muscle men -- Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan, rippling icons of American freedom. These high-profile hulks inspired Bell and his brothers to become muscle men in their later years. Older brother Mike (aka "Mad Dog") becomes a WWF wrestler for a brief spell, while little bro Mark (aka "Smelly") becomes a competitive power lifter.

But they find out they need a little boost to become as the title implies, which meant taking anabolic steroids, a drug they thought their idols didn't need to take. (Those fools!)

With "Mad Dog" off the stuff (among other drugs), "Smelly" still on the juice and Bell himself "on the fence," this is where "Bigger" takes off. Bell talks with a gallery of people, from medical experts to steroid defenders to athletes who've been caught using (notoriously stripped Olympic runner Ben Johnson still looks kinda bitter) to the politicians fighting against steroids (Bell interviewing a clueless Henry Waxman is the highlight of the flick). And he learns what some of us already knew: No one really has the final word on steroid use.

Although, as Bell finds, anabolic steroids can help a man living with HIV continue with his life, it's still considered the most lethal member of the performance-enhancing family. And yet, there are other performance enhancers out there that people use, and they don't get half the ink that steroids do. There's this American belief that if you take steroids, you're not only cheating yourself, but you're also unpatriotic. (Steroids apparently were introduced to America in the late '50s when a Russian Olympic coach drunkenly told a U.S. coach about the drug.)

You can't help wondering if one of the side effects of steroids is ADD, since "Bigger" can be unfocused and all over the place. Bell tries heroically to maintain so much with his film -- from weighing the pros and cons of steroids to keeping his family from crumbling when members rail against the brothers' steroid use to delving into what constitutes cheating or merely improving yourself -- that he often gets sidetracked from his initial, are-steroids-bad-for-you mission. (Since there's a ban on steroids, there hasn't been any testing made to study its long-term effects.) He also pulls a goofy, attention-grabbing stunt or two, like picking up some illegal workers to help him make a cheap, dietary supplement, which makes him look more a chest-swollen Michael Moore. (Or, even worse, a chest-swollen Morgan Spurlock.)

But then again, "Bigger" isn't really about steroids. It is about a man reassessing the lies he grew up believing were gospel and coming to terms with the fact that his heroes are just like everyone else. The men he looked up to for preaching truth, justice and the American way are nothing more than flaw-heavy opportunists, cutting corners and doing what they can to get ahead in this society.

Upbeat yet ultimately, unfortunately pessimistic, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" is a movie for all those people who knew that adage about cheaters never prospering was too good to be true. In this film, Bell realizes that the American dream is just that, a romantic fantasy that will never be realized.

Shoot, any laid-off newspaper employee can tell you that.

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