Craig Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a rich boy who owes his wealth to what he has inherited from his late parents, but he has been meaning to invest that fortune in a real estate scheme, and teams up with another three businessmen in the process. Led by the menacing Jabo (Joe Spinell), they have nearly bought a whole district between them, and are anticipating the vast amounts of cash which will roll in when they develop it, but there are a few holdouts, one of which is a gymnasium, The Olympic. Craig is dispatched to persuade them to sell, but then a strange thing happens - he gets to like its denizens.
Sort of a variation of the well-worn plot where the big city gent arrives in the rural smalltown planning to shake it up, then ends up thoroughly charmed by those he meets until he "goes native", Stay Hungry is recalled today for one of its cast members. Considering the actors and actresses who did show up in director Bob Rafelson's movie, then you might be expecting them all to be jostling for position in the memory, as this really was a one of a kind selection of established stars, character actors and the soon to be famous, almost every man jack of them the possessor of a fan following aside from the bit parts and minor roles. Yet there was but one chap who anybody would talk about.
Even when selling it today, it's not put across as the loose, easygoing, defiantly quirky comedy drama it is, but as a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, for it was he, third billed in what was proclaimed to be his acting debut in spite of his worldbeating performance under the name Arnold Strong in Hercules in New York. Sadly, he didn't wrestle with a man in a bear suit this time around, in fact belying his action icon reputation he didn't get into one single fight in this movie, preferring to shoot the breeze with his co-stars or play the violin in a bluegrass band, as he does when Rafelson ventures out of Birmingham, Alabama to the countryside, where we are offered such other idiosyncrasies as Sally Field waterskiing, but that's the kind of film this was.
Field played the love interest to first Schwarzenegger, then Bridges when Craig gets to hang around with the gym eccentrics, as all ideas of making a fortune out of development go out of the window and he settles on aimlessly spending time there, getting to know the people who work and train - including the unlikely mixture of Freddy Krueger himself Robert Englund, R.G. Armstrong in a bad wig and future friend of Magnum Roger E. Mosley - while his associates are initially irritated at his inactivity, then send the heavy mob around to apply strongarm tactics. Not that this was in any way a thriller, it was too laidback for that, making the occasional bursts of violence enough to have you complain to the characters, hey man, can't you see we're trying to relax here?
As for Ahnold, he fit into this milieu very nicely, offering his most naturalistic performance, nothing too taxing obviously, but you could believe he was a real person and not a superhuman combat machine as he would soon be finding more lucrative when the eighties dawned. It's telling he doesn't take his shirt off until the last fifteen minutes of the movie when he finally competes in the bodybuilding contest he's been training for (at times dressed as a superhero or a Mexican wrestler, oddly), but when he does it's the cue for everyone else to get physical as the most memorable visual is of the streets filled with scantily clad bodybuilders, running through the traffic at high speeds and eventually posing for the public. Actually, Field was fairly scantily clad herself, trying to shake her wholesome image, though even then the mayhem at the finale was a little unsettling. Until then, there were a few laughs, Scatman Crothers with hair and a mood that felt stoned without anyone actually doing so onscreen. Music by Byron Berline and Bruce Langhorne.