“I believe in fitness,” announces Mark Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo in the opening scene of Pain & Gain, in the midst of his downfall before the film flashes back to a few months earlier, in order to communicate the true context of his indignity. The syntactical likeness to The Godfather’s opening line works regardless of intent; this is a film about America, and Lugo’s eagerness to cram everything positive about the American dream—self-reliance, success, limitless potential—into the convenient metonymy of blasting his pecs ultimately keeps satisfaction at bay.
The delusion only works if it’s wrapped up in something intangible, unattainable. After tripling the customer base of Sun Gym and ending up top dog in the weight room, Lugo remains a poor hustler will a prison record. And they still call the biggest guy at the gym a rat.
The lurid, psychotic deluge of bad decisions that trigger one another keeps Pain & Gain’s plot spilling out like a sickening ride downhill in a car with the brakes gone, so difficult to believe are the exploits of Lugo and his partners in crime. The botched attempt at the perfect crime that ropes in the film’s antagonist, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), in which Lugo and his cohorts Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and Doorval (Anthony Mackie) kidnap Kershaw and force him to sign over all his assets, would have been enough to sustain a feature film on its own.
But too much is never enough, especially not in the world of characters who have replaced all positive values with “winning” and the smokiest, most primal notion of getting. In the third act, when Lugo’s ego truly seals his fate and that of his partners, and all pretense of trying to get away with it go out the window, a caption slams across the screen: “This is STILL a true story.”
The auteurist argument for Pain & Gain is an easy one, but it’s not particularly interesting. Recurring Bay themes pop up here and there, albeit mostly in the form of small penis jokes or homophobic non sequiturs. “Steroidal” actually does his direction justice, with relentless whip pans, dollies, and crane shots making up the elaborate mise-en-scène that simply can’t sit still, like a late scene where Lugo, waist-deep in a crime scene, rushes to do a set of bicep curls to calm himself down.
Pain & Gain doesn’t work as a sort of Rosetta Stone to Bay’s career, illuminating deeper concerns that were there all along. Rather, it illuminates that freed of the obligations to choreograph mass destruction and storyboard boxing matches between giant robots, Bay remains a gifted visual stylist, one who keeps the story of the Sun Gym gang pulsing along at a pace so manic, our instincts tell us that a violent crash waits just around the corner.
What’s the net gain of a film like this, at first glance a morass of ugly cynicism built around the conceit of mocking lunkheaded, reprehensible sociopaths by installing A-list actors for a dash of empathy? Their victim, Kershaw, reeks of prejudice and sleaze from his first scene in the gym, so the audience even lacks the basic satisfaction of rooting for a good guy. The lone positive character in the narrative is Ed Harris’s P.I., who functions purely as a plot device. Even after his first confrontation with Lugo, the crooks never act as though there’s a noose around their necks.
The train of horrifying mistakes chugs along, emitting billowing clouds of cocaine. Call it bad plotting, but the treatment of Detective DuBois feels totally in step with the universe that the Sun Gym gang inhabit. He’s there, but like a faint echo, or a ghost, imported from some other reality where morals exist—and so does contentment.
Glimmers of Bay’s take on The Master emerge in scenes featuring Ken Jeong’s cameo as the infomercial-worthy motivational speaker Johnny Wu (“Believe you deserve it the universe will serve it!”), who serves as a clear inspiration to Lugo and fuels his desire to become a “winner”, whatever that means. The stars and stripes wave perpetually in the background, a cheap ironic device that posits the Sun Gym gang as products of a culture placing so much emphasis on illusory symbols that the symbols themselves and the ideals they represent can be twisted to mean just about anything.
Not a film for the squeamish, ethically or otherwise, Pain & Gain largely asks: Does a satire need to be smart, or even self-aware, in order to succeed? The Lugos of the world would likely get a kick out of this movie, mocking the mistakes of movie morons while thinking of ways they could pull off the same tricks without the crucial missteps. Where Bay succeeds, and wildly so, is in his realization of a uniquely ugly and repellent vision of his country, a coked-out fantasia with fever dreams brought on by heat stroke and blue balls. He’s made a picture as outrageously entertaining as it is deeply repulsive, an experience that thrills and titillates just as it paints the American flag onto the wall at the end of the tunnel, Wile E. Coyote style. God help us, Pain & Gain is one of the first great movies of 2013.
Perhaps recognizing that the Lugos of the world don’t listen to DVD commentaries, Paramount has released the Blu-ray of Pain & Gain with nary a bonus feature in sight, save the obligatory digital copy. Too bad; some of that stunt footage would be fascinating.