Joe And Ben Weider: The Fathers Of The Fitness Movement

Joe Weider and his younger sibling, Ben, were visionaries, the founders of the modern fitness movement. Drawing a connection between exercise, nutrition and good health, the Montreal-born Jewish  brothers founded a business empire that sells gym equipment and nutritional supplements and publishes body building magazines.

Joe, right, and Ben Weider

George Gallo’s movie, Bigger, which opens in Canada on October 12, charts their astonishing rise from poverty to wealth. Starring Tyler Hoechlin as Joe and Aneurin Barnard as Ben, this is a serviceable film about two guys with big dreams.

It starts as Joe looks back at his life on the eve of Ben’s funeral. These flashbacks, beginning with Joe’s birth in 1920, are the cinematic cement that bind it together.

Their parents, Polish immigrants from Galicia, were dirt poor. But deprivation was not the only obstacle. They were dogged by antisemitism, a theme that runs through Bigger. As young Joe walks down a street in 1930s Montreal, French Canadian hooligans shout “dirty Jew” and attack him. Traumatized by the assault, Joe vows to build up his strength so he can  fend off bullies.

The movie moves to 1940. Joe, sitting in a library, is drawing pencil portraits of the physiques of athletic men. He’s fascinated by the human form. An attractive woman takes a fancy to him. She will become his wife.

It’s 1941 and Joe is applying for a menial job in a restaurant. “You’re not a Jew, are you?” the antisemitic owner asks. He proceeds to unleash a torrent of anti-Jewish epithets as he tries to humiliate Joe. This was an era when visible manifestations of anti-Jewish animus were common. In short order, Joe wreaks vengeance on him.

Convinced he can compete with established body building magazines, Joe launches Your Physique, a mimeographed magazine he writes and assembles in his parents’ modest home. His mother, a harsh disciplinarian, is less than convinced that Joe is on the right road. His father, a presser in a garment factory, voices encouragement. Joe’s wife is upset because he’s spending far too much time on his new venture, which consumes him.

As gamely portrayed by Hoechlin, Joe is an earnest, focused and industrious person who’s intent on following his dream. Ben, played understatedly by Barnard, acts as a brake on Joe’s impulsivity.

The Weiders, in a breakthrough, convince a New York City news distribution company to distribute Your Physique on a mass scale.

Joe’s fierce competitor, Bill Hauk (Kevin Durand), dismisses him as “a dirty little Jew.” Undeterred by the insult, Joe pushes on, branching into the sale of barbells, the publication of fitness magazines, the staging of Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympias contests, and the founding of the International Federation of Body Builders.

Joe Weider and Betty, as they’re portrayed in Bigger

By then, the Weiders have moved to sunny California, where Joe meets his second wife, Betty Brosmer (Julianne Hough), a blonde bombshell. Betty is a model and pinup girl, but she’s more than just a pretty face. She has a good head on her shoulders and becomes Joe’s advisor and confidant.

Joe, left, Arnold and Ben in Bigger

Joe’s lobbying efforts to include body building in the Olympic Games fall flat, but his discovery of an obscure Austrian body-builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger (Calum Von Moger) pays dividends.

Bigger sometimes has the feel of an extended promotional video, but on balance, it’s a zippy portrait of two driven brothers who overcome adversity and achieve their cherished goals.