I think the audience for Pain and Gain is going to know exactly who they are, and I count myself amongst that number. The latest from director Michael Bay, often treated tantamount to Satan in many critical circles, has the based-on-a-true-story hook but really it’s the big stars, stylish violence, peculiar criminal antics, and overall overflowing machismo of the picture that will draw its audience. I knew after one watch of the trailer that I wanted to see it, though I was somewhat ashamed of the level of my interest (don’t want to taint your critical credentials with too much sympathy for the devil, after all). Pain and Gain is a trashy and entertaining jaunt, just as I hoped it would be, but it overstays its welcome and may leave you fatigued and possibly dejected (so… a typical Michael Bay movie? Still got it).
In 1995, three Miami, Florida goons enacted one of the most bizarre and sordid criminal schemes, a story that could supply a tabloid with enough juicy exposes for a year. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) and his co-worker Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) are personal trainers at Sun Gym. Their days consist of pumping iron and hitting on ladies. One of Lugo’s clients is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a wealthy businessman with a nasty temper. Lugo and Doorbal, with the help of an ex-con and ex-junkie (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), kidnap Kershaw, hold him hostage for weeks, torture him, and eventually get him to sign over his assets to them. Afterwards they try to stage his “accidental” death, though like most things, it does not go according to plan. Penniless and broken, Kershaw seeks out help from a retired private eye, ED DuBois (Ed Harris), to provide validation for his case. The Miami police are laughing off his claims. Kershaw is concerned that the Sun Gym gang will strike again when their lavish lifestyle dips, and he’s right. Lugo and company get into even more trouble and the body count rises.
The results on screen are often entertaining in an over-the-top fashion, sustaining a rubbernecking captivation much like a horrendous car wreck. You just have to see how much crazier this thing gets, all the while muttering to yourself, “This was a true story?” It even gets to the point where the movie will remind you, via onscreen text as a man barbecues a batch of severed hands, that yes this is still a true story. Naturally there have been fictional inventions, character composites, and some details have been dropped to fit into the confines of a film narrative, but online research shows me that most of the larger plot beats are accurate, thus making the film even more compelling and disturbing. When the film is on, it feels manically alive with intrigue and absurdity. The problem is that it cannot keep this manic tone alive forever especially when actual innocent bodies start piling up (more on that later). There’s a certain uncomfortable tonal incongruity as the film develops and the comedy picks up a distasteful resonance. I love a well-executed dark comedy but just because something is macabre or unexpected does not automatically make it funny. Still, the movie has enough high-energy antisocial antics to keep you planted in your seat, laughing through bafflement.
Pain and Gain isn’t subtle in the slightest and yet it’s easily the most nuanced film of Bay’s career. Of course there are still the sleek cars, sexy babes, emphasis on style, and wanton destruction that are hallmarks of the man’s career, but the perspective is given a satirical prism, dropping us into the deluded, sub-American Psycho perspective of Lugo, a man with a very cracked view of the American Dream. The moral message reminds me of Marge Gunderson’s concluding musing in Fargo, telling a captured criminal, “There’s more to life than a little money, you know.” There’s some slight social commentary on wealth and the dirty tricks of capitalism, but really it’s the narcissistic delusions of a jacked-up criminal who believes he can succeed because he’s “seen a lot of movies.” You may even find yourself sympathizing with some of these knuckleheads, that is, until things get way out of hand. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America: The First Avenger) is briskly paced and packed with bizarre details and even jumps into six different characters for voice over (Wahlberg, Johnson, Mackie, Shalhoub, Harris, and Bar Paly). For some characters it works as a great insight into their twisted logic but for others it’s just an easy set up for ridicule. The juvenile humor (did we really need a visual pubic hair joke?), candy-coated film palate, and sugar-rush, roid-rage plotting feel like a suitable match for the talents of the bombastic Bay.
The last thirty minutes of the movie will test your sensibilities of good taste. I’m all for having unlikable central characters just as long as the writer makes them interesting (what good is likeable but boring, the “friend zone” of characterization?). Some of movie history’s most fascinating characters have been scumbags and psychos. However, with that being said, I need my unlikeable characters to at least progress. When I’m stuck with a bad dude who keeps making the same bad mistakes, it can grow tiresome, and that’s where Pain and Gain ultimately lost me. Bay can’t quite keep up the charade of ironic bemusement forever, and a saggy second half starts to tread water, forcing the characters to act even more outlandish and inept. Did we need The Rock losing his big toe and then inexplicably giving it to a dog? It feels like the movie is filling time until the accidental murders come into being, raising the stakes. For a movie that’s 130 minutes, there should not be any need to fill time. During that long sad stretch, you start to feel disquiet, like the movie has lost its sense of perspective and the jokes have gotten too mean, too ugly, too outlandish. It doesn’t feel funny any more, and maybe that’s ultimately the point, but by the end Pain and Gain has soured. It overstays its welcome and then some.
Its tone and connection to the real world raises an interesting and thorny question over whether something like this is appropriate. Should a story that involved the murders of innocent people end up becoming an over-the-top, stylized, lavishly glamorized Hollywood crime comedy? It has been over 15 years since the events of the Sun Gym gang, but is there a statue of limitations on good taste? Are we eventually destined for a vulgar film tackling the poor lives of the victims of 9/11? The answer is almost certain. What is off limits, or more pressingly, should anything be off limits to a comedic narrative? Is anyone really furious with Trey Parker and Matt Stone over their first film, Cannibal the Musical, transforming nineteenth century murder into song and dance? I doubt it, and yet there was something very off-putting about 2011’s 30 Minutes or Less, an unfunny comedy based around the true story of a pizza guy strapped with a bomb and ordered to rob a bank. The guy was blown to bits in real life (ha ha?). I guess I, as well as audiences, would have been more forgiving if the movie had been funny. I’m sure there would be fewer objections if Bay’s film had been more of a sober, contemplative drama on the sad acts of a bunch of desperate criminals, but with all the hyperbolic elements, machismo, and so-crazy-it-must-be-true plot turns, how could you turn this story into a serious drama? Not from the perspective of the nitwit criminals, at least. I don’t think the movie is ever positioning these guys as anti-heroes or excuses their excess.
Wahlberg (Ted) broke out as an actor thanks to a similar role as a wannabe star whose ambitions exceeded his grasp, and the man does dumb as good as just about anyone in Hollywood. It’s a specific kind of dumb, the angry, arrogant, pissy, self-involved kind of dumb that makes it acceptable to ridicule his character to no end. Johnson (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) gets to explore some interesting range as an actor, pacing around the demons of his character before just going hog-wild with the excess. Mackie (Gangster Squad) is arguable the most sympathetic of the group but also with the most to lose. Compared to his peers, he’s practically mild-mannered even though he takes injections into his penis. Shalhoub (TV’s Monk) is amusingly apoplectic and just enough of a jerk that you excuse his misfortune, at least for a little while. Ken Jeong (The Hangover) and Israeli model-turned-actor Bar Paly give the exact performances you would expect them to deliver. The best actor in the whole movie, though truth be told there isn’t a stinker in the bunch, is Emily Rutherford (Elizabethtown, TV’s The New Adventures of Old Christine) who plays Dubois’ wife. She has this calming, down-to-earth presence that seems to bring a small sense of peace to the madcap antics. She doesn’t have a lot of screen time but you’ll wish she had lots more.
Perhaps I’m being unfair to a movie that clearly isn’t intending to be anything but naughty, tacky, and gleefully excessive. In a way Pain and Gain reminds me of Tony Scott’s Domino, loosely based upon a true story but crushed to death by narrative kabuki and Scott’s characteristic excess. If I wanted to defend the much maligned Michael Bay, I’d argue what the real difference is between his excess and the excess of the more critically lauded Scott? Bay doesn’t have a slate of movies to his credit the likes of Top Gun, Crimson Tide, or True Romance. But isn’t flashy, artistic excess all the same when in the name of empty storytelling? Domino is also an apt comparison because it’s ultimately tiresome and far overstays its welcome, losing its audience with an endless array of odd sidesteps and moronic, deviant characters. While Pain and Gain has enough quirk and style to justify consideration, you may not respect yourself once it’s over.
Nate’s Grade: C+