Jonathan Majors excels in Magazine Dreams, but the film is too artificial to measure up to Taxi Driver, from which it clearly takes inspiration.
This review contains minor spoilers for Elijah Bynum‘s film Magazine Dreams (2023).
Killian (Jonathan Majors, of Devotion) is angry. So angry, in fact, that his music genre of choice is heavy metal, and he plays it loud in his car when he’s off to “split [someone’s] skull open and drink [their] brains like soup.” But Killian doesn’t just have issues controlling his rage: he’s also completely obsessed with bodybuilding, so much so that he spends most of his days self-injecting steroids, eating way too much, and posing by the mirror in his underwear, mimicking his idol Brad Vanderhorn (Mike O’Hearn, of Days of our Lives), to whom he sends fan mail that still remains unanswered.
But that’s not all. Killian is also incredibly unlucky, as the steroids have harmed his own body to the point that his organs are failing, and he’s also the only one left in his family who can care for his sick veteran grandfather, as both of his parents are dead. But make no mistake: Killian is no ordinary orphan. He didn’t lose his parents to an accident or illness, but they happened to shoot one another, years prior, in a terrible family tragedy.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not telling you all of this to poke fun at Magazine Dreams‘ protagonist. On the contrary, Jonathan Majors’ (Devotion) performance in the film is one of its redeeming features, together with a twist at the end that you won’t see coming. It’s just such a shame that writer and director Elijah Bynum’s (Hot Summer Nights) second movie – which has just had its World Premiere at Sundance – turned out to be such a misfire.
On paper, the film was so very promising: a young man who struggles to read social cues and control his temper gets more and more disconnected with the world around him the more he becomes obsessed with achieving bodybuilding superstardom – a goal that prevents him from having a healthy life and interacting with the people around him. But, watching the movie, it soon becomes quite clear that Magazine Dreams si more concerned with telling a Taxi Driver meets Joker kind of story than crafting believable, three-dimensional characters that don’t just serve this specific story but also exist as people.
Films like Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy and Joker – whose protagonists are all well-meaning, lonely men whose descent into darkness is a result of the way other people treat them and their misconceptions about society – are so gripping because their protagonists are complex, relatable human beings whom we come to care for over the course of the movies. These films take their time to introduce these characters to us, so that, by the time they begin to make all the wrong choices, we really feel for them, and this causes the movies in question to have a huge emotional impact on us.
On the contrary, Magazine Dreams introduces us to a character who only exists within the limited walls of the film’s narrative. Though we spend pretty much the entire film’s runtime with him, we never really get to connect with Killian on an emotional level, as there’s a predictability to his actions that makes him feel extremely one-dimensional, and at times even caricatural. It doesn’t help that every single character our protagonist meets or interacts with serves a specific purpose in the film, and happens to show up at exactly the right moment, so that it can further affect the poor man’s life and set forth the next stage of his journey.
As a result, the film spends so much time showing us just how miserable and lonely its protagonist is – and we’re talking about someone who’s not only extremely unlucky and suffering from both mental and physical illness, but who’s also beaten up, ridiculed and exploited many times throughout the movie – that it stops being realistic. There’s a point where you’ll inevitably be able to predict exactly what’s going to happen next – even more so if you’ve seen Taxi Driver, which the film even tries to reference a couple of times – and you’ll stop caring for its protagonist completely, due to how artificial it all feels.
It really is a shame, because Jonathan Majors is excellent in the film. With impressive physical acting and incredible restraint, the Devotion actor pours so much emotion into his character to demand our attention throughout Magazine Dreams‘s entire runtime, even with its flaws. There’s a scene at the end that you won’t see coming, where part of that emotion will come through and you’ll start appreciating the film more.
If the screenplay had provided us with a more well-rounded character and a less manipulative storyline, we would have been able to feel all that emotion, and we would have had a truly outstanding movie. But Magazine Dreams‘ lack of authenticity and predictable narrative beats are ultimately its downfall, preventing it from leaving a mark.
Magazine Dreams premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2023.