Pain & Gain
Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub, Rebel Wilson
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 26 Apr 2013 (General release); UK theatrical: 28 Aug 2013 (General release); 2013)
You’re going to hear it a lot this week, both in defense of, and as a slam, against, it’s based on a true story strategies, and with a mere $20 million dollars in pre-summer movie season receipts, many will cite it as a commercial cautionary example. Still, as a kind of sloppy shorthand, critics and complainers have decided to label Michael Bay’s crime caper comedy Pain & Gain “the non-thinking man’s Fargo” or, even worse, “the Coen brothers on steroids.” Neither comparison is wholly accurate, since the artistic triumph of the siblings’ Oscar winning 1996 film is light years away from Bay’s chaotic, cobbled together movie mess. Aside from the narrative basics, there’s barely any real link at all, and even comparing plotlines is a massive stretch.
Still, in our everyone’s a pundit social pecking order, the inter-web has been wild with such hamfisted allusions. A few have even gone so far as to praise the former music video and commercial maker for out stylizing the Coens. While it would be easy to laugh at such a lack of perspective, it’s better to take it down one logical argument after another. So here are five clear distinctions between the Coens’ masterpiece and Bay’s befuddled flop. Most have to do with the people behind and in front of the camera. One deals with the current film’s main narrative flaw while another takes its backdrop to task. In the end, what’s clear is that Fargo earns its outrageous crime thriller accolades. Pain & Gain is just dumb.
Let’s begin with the two film’s main difference:
Imagine the Coen brothers’ brilliant film without its female sheriff lead. That’s what Pain & Gain is like (and that’s another stretch - we know, we know). There’s the whole messy kidnapping angle and the bumbling crooks behind it, the desperate guy at the center who comes up with the idea and the nasty, comically brutal way it all ends (again, we realize it’s a stretch to call Pain & Gain‘s finale ‘funny’). But there’s no representative of goodness or fairness to foil them. Not even Ed Harris’ somnambulatist PI. Instead, it’s just one a-hole after another blathering on about what they deserve in life vs. what they don’t get. With Marge Gunderson, we got a long arm of the law measuring out homespun moralizing. Something like this is desperate needed in this otherwise amoral anarchy.
From the “you betcha” accents to the barren, snow covered locale, the wilds of Northern Minnesota provided a perfect contrast to the criminal craziness going on in Fargo. Indeed, who could forget the bleak nighttime death of the highway patrolman, or the kidnapper’s bloody attempt to hide the money in the middle of a pure white drift covered field. The Coens used their backdrop for a purpose, not as a mere place. Bay, on the other hand, does little with his Miami locale except for referencing Scarface and showing us the sweaty inside of a gymnasium. No reference to the city’s South Beach revitalization. No homage to its massive Hispanic heritage. Just sunny skies and the occasional palm tree. Oh, a bulked up bodybuilders.
First off, Pain & Gain is nearly 90% based on a real case that happened in South Florida. Just look it up, or better yet, read the articles by the Miami New Times’ Peter Collins. Sure, there’s a composite or two and a couple of calculated changes, but in essence, Bay took the story of some desperate bodybuilders who kidnapped a man and then (SPOILER ALERT) ended up killing and dismembering another couple and turned it into a sledgehammer level farce. In the Coen’s case, their supposedly true tale is almost 100% fictional. Sure, they were inspired by a wood chipper crime in Connecticut, but for the most part, everything else is a product of their fertile imaginations. The genius of their work is that they manage to make a conventional thriller into a sensational serio-comic lark. Everything fits the film’s tone. In Pain & Gain, death becomes a buffer for the homophobia and borderline ethnic hate crimes involved.
And he’s the rub - is death really that funny? Sure, when our bumbling crooks decided to take their growing frustrations out on each other, the notion of Peter Stormare putting Steve Buscemi in a landscaping device and hitting the “ON” button seems like jolly just desserts. In Pain & Gain, the actions of Mark Wahlberg and his buddies Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie seem like gruesome gravy on top of some already awful movie mashed potatoes. The killings come out of the blue, turn gory relatively quickly, and are then played up for comedic potential (The Rock cluelessly grilling some human hands out near the hideout). And, again, unlike Fargo, there is no voice of legal reason trying to stop them from continuing their craven ways. The Pain & Gain victims are long dissolved in barrels of lye, laying at the bottom of a Florida swamp before the police care what’s going on.
With their love hate relationship constantly being challenged by their clear contempt for each other, the crooks at the center of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo make for some funny bad guys. There is just something innately hilarious about a scrawny little welp constantly whining to a bigger, badder guy who barely speaks English. In Pain & Gain, the dynamic is a bit different. Wahlberg is the powder keg, a trip wire ready to go off at any moment. As for The Rock, he’s the Born Again whiner who doesn’t want to do wicked, wanton things. Sure, he’s an ex-con and has issues with those who would idolize his physique for sexual reasons, but for the most part, he’s the Buscemi to Wahlberg’s Stormare. And it just doesn’t work. And Mackie. He’s there for ethic sexual slams only.
There’s no denying that Bay it trying to break free of the mold (and mildew) he wallowed in with those elephantine excuses for entertainment known as the Transformers films. All throughout Pain & Gain, he employs numerous directorial tricks, from slow motion running to freeze frames, bullet-time focus on individual drops of blood to revved up, actor assisted camera angles. This is him trying to play artist, and it works on a kind of goofy, showboating level. But the Coens can turn their motion picture prestidigitation into an entire approach, not just a collection of individual scenes. They don’t rely on montage to make their points. Instead, their quirk infuses every frame.
In Fargo, the lead is a female. In Pain & Gain, Bay turns his ladies into laughing points, or sexual asides. Go figure.