- Pain and Gain might be sweet for meatheads, but other viewers will likely leave feeling burned.
Pain and Gain | C
I SUSPECT THATsubtlety is a word Michael Bay has never stumbled across. Certainly nothing in his film career suggests it. Since his 1995 debut with Bad Boys, the director has been remarkably consistent with his amoral, more-is-more style of filmmaking.
Ever-present military hardware, offered as the ultimate expression of male virility, combined with crazed camera angles, capturing ejaculatory explosions, between which minorities are reduced to racial stereotypes and woman are either leered at or mocked (usually both at the same time). And some of it’s fun; if you’re a hysterically horny teen or gun-fetishizing frat boy. Of all the reviews bemoaning Bay’s excessive artistic sensibilities, the Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter’s critique of Armageddon is perhaps my favorite: “Watching it is like putting your head in a tin wash bucket while weightlifters whack it with golf clubs.”
Made on a reported budget of $25 million, Pain and Gain has been billed as Bay’s “small movie.” Never mind that it stars Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie and a retinue of top-tier character actors; to the action filmmaker’s mind this steroidal black comedy is akin to slumming it in indie-ville. Let’s call it his Sex, Lies and Videotape.
Inspired by a bat-shit crazy true story from the 1990s and reveling in testosterone, torture and T&A, Bay introduces us to Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), a muscle-headed Miami personal trainer who takes the “me first” lessons of a self-help guru named Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong). Daniel then twists these lessons into his version of attaining the American Dream.
Here it means teaming up with wannabe bodybuilder Adrian Doorbal (Mackie) and ex-con turned Jesus-freak Christian Paul Doyle (Johnson) to kidnap his despicable millionaire client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub — hamming it up with nasty Jewish glee), and steal everything he owns.
Victor turns out to be one tough son of a bitch, who not only survives nearly a month of torture but also multiple attempts on his life. Once free, however, the police don’t believe a word of his outrageous story and he hires a private investigator (Ed Harris) to find justice.
Meanwhile, the dangerously idiotic gym-rat pack blows through its millions and decides to rip off a local porn producer (Michael Rispoli). Murder and mayhem ensue.
It’s Burn After Reading jacked up to be Bad Boys. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem. Bay only knows how to pitch his movies at one level: all bombast, all the time. His characters are grotesquely exaggerated, his sense of humor has all the sophistication of a dick joke, and you can’t help but feel that, even as he presents these murderous morons in all their dull-witted glory, he kind of admires their sloping-brow sense of joie de vivre.
You’d think his glossy, florid style would be a good match for the violent bumblings of these hyper-masculine Three Stooges, but it turns out his direction mostly flails about, trying to find a proper rhythm and focus. The man is simply not much of a storyteller and, from all appearances, incapable of subtext.
Of course, Bay isn’t helped by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script, which has various characters handing off voiceover duties like a tag-team wrestling match. Some ramble, some provide meaningful background; some tell us what we already know. In the end, they just confuse the narrative, throwing off the tone — and our sympathies.
It’s as if the writers decided to throw every sordid fact and side story at the screen in hopes that the sheer this-then-that outrageousness of it all will impress.
What keeps thing bearable for Pain and Gain’s two-plus hours is the cast. Wahlberg and Mackie do a good job of playing off each other and the supporting cast, which includes Rebel Wilson and Rob Corddry — and is first-rate.
Harris, in particular, brings some class to the joint. But it’s Johnson, who would have made for a more interesting protagonist, who shines brightest. Giving his best performance yet, his character’s descent from devout to depraved is both funny and frightening, providing what little dramatic core the movie has.
It’s no small task making a movie that’s filled with so many vile characters behaving like sociopathic imbeciles. Without Frances McDormand’s Marge, Fargo probably wouldn't have landed an Oscar. Yet, aside for a few missed opportunities in the script — Shalhoub’s footnote of a backstory, Wahlberg’s eagerness to pass the murderous buck to Johnson — Pain and Gain doesn’t seem to have an actual point to make.
Far from any kind of statement on how the American Dream has been corrupted into a message of entitled avarice, Bay seems to think the film’s real-life crimes were, in and of themselves, enough of an insane hoot to justify the A-list treatment. From my point of view, that’s just cinematic rubbernecking.
Pain and Gain is playing in theaters everywhere. This film is rated R; running time is 130 minutes.
Jeff Meyers reviews films for Metro Times. Send comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.