[25 April 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We know we are in trouble from the opening beats. Our lead, a lunkheaded personal trainer named Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is being chased by the cops, apparently for doing something horrendous. As he runs in slow motion, the camera occasionally ‘becoming’ part of his streak to freedom, an internal monologue begins explaining things. At a certain point, the voice over narrative switches perspective and Daniel riffs on the most influential people in his life - and they are all fictional characters. Tony Montana. Rocky Balboa. Some infomercial guy. No real life human heroes, just similarly stunted guys he’s idolized since he saw them on the silver (or TV) screen.
One imagines we are supposed to laugh at such ludicrous role models. On the other hand, they turn an already animated center into a stupid piece of narrative cartooning. Indeed, Michael Bay’s return to “small” moviemaking, the oddly titled Pain & Gain, is as loud, as splashy, and as overloaded with gimmicks as any of his previous amped up action thrillers. This comedy on steroids - literally and figuratively - wallows in a kind of inexcusable excess that dulls everything that’s supposed to be quirky and/or clever. In their place are homophobic asides, ripe racial stereotyping, a lack of any legitimate rooting interest, and a backstory that, once revealed, turns everything onscreen into a sadistic excuse to watch a bunch of losers commit some very, very, very heinous crimes.
It’s the mid ‘90s in Miami, Florida. Lugo, fresh out of prison for fraud, sets his sights on getting a job at the failing Sun Gym. It’s boss (Rob Corddry) caters to the local elderly population. Lugo promises to turn the place into an upscale singles hangout. Along with new buddy Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), they cater to a growing upscale clientele, all the while arguing over their individual issues. Lugo wants money and power and importance. Doorbal would just like some working genitalia (he suffers from a clear case of juice induced E.D.).
One day, our dreamer attends a seminar by infomercial guru Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong) and is inspired to take action. His plan? Kidnap an annoying, arrogant man named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), force him to sign over all his wealth, and live the good life. It won’t be easy, and when Lugo eyes ex-con (and Jesus freak) Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) as a possible accomplice, things start falling into place.
As they plan the caper, Doorbal falls for a nurse (Rebel Wilson) while the other two woo an Eastern European stripper (Bar Paly). It’s not long before things take a turn to the nasty, requiring input from an ex-cop turned private detective (Ed Harris). He hopes to find Lugo, Doyle, and Doorbal and stop their wave of wanton felonies. Sadly, he soon discovers that things for everyone have gone from bad to much, much worse.
Like a Thanksgiving turkey so overstuffed that it will never cook correctly, Pain & Gain is half-baked and half-assed. It’s Michael Bay talking down to his audience, addressing previous criticisms about excess and hyperbole by offering equal amounts of both. Who else but the man who made Armageddon and The Island would think the true life story of a group of cretinous killers would make a hilarious pre-Summer blockbuster. Everything here is played for farce, including torture and dismemberment, and just when you think things can’t get any more jaw-dropping, Bay adds in some material (Wilson’s blatant race/sex sentiments, a warehouse filled with phallic ‘martial aides’) that spins everything over into an insult.
This is a proposed laugher without jokes, a jaundiced excuse for entertainment that trades on tragedy for its questionable ends. Bay might be having fun with style and approach (lots of Matrix-esque camera tricks and sparkling neon color schemes) but he has no idea how to handle this kind of material. Of course, he only has the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to deal with and the duo (responsible for everything from the failed Chronicles of Narnia franchise to the upcoming Marvel movies featuring Thor and Captain America) play wannabe Coens. The only problem is, Fargo felt like fiction, no matter its reality. Pain & Gain beats us over the head with its “this is a true story” mantra. It grows tiresome after a while.
For their part, Wahlberg and Johnson appear in on the joke. Both try hard, and end up winning us over, if only a little. Again, they can only essay the roles they’ve been given, but there is a real desire to go for broke and break all the rules. This is especially true of Johnson, who gets the biggest character arc (Born Again prison convert to cokehead, and back again) and manages to make even some pretty hateful dialogue seem legitimate. For his part, Shaloub is beyond irritating. He turns any potential sympathy we’d have for Kershaw into a reason to rip him yet another new a-hole. His character is totally despicable, even when defending himself against anti-Semitic inquiries and questions of his legal status (he was born in South America, after all). The weakest links exist in the periphery. Wilson is without purpose, Mackie seems a few dozen gym trips out of his machismo league, and Harris does some hound dog detecting, and that’s about it.
But it’s Bay who plays the biggest cinematic shell game here. While arguing for his general downsizing of strategy, this is still an engorged example of his creative chutzpah. There’s no subtlety here, no attempt to moderate action with attitude. Instead, when vehicles drive down I-95 to some unexplained location, they are typically jacked up sports cars moving at unimaginably high rates of speed. When bullets fly, it’s like a WWII battle ballet. Even more somber moments, like a quasi-sex scene between Wilson and Mackie, are made indifferent by Bay’s delusion music video tweaks. It’s nice to see him working without the benefit of oversized stunt set-pieces or CGI creations, but Pain & Gain is not a small movie. In fact, it’s a big fat fiasco pretending to be a character piece.
Not that Bay or his movie ever really lie to us. Pain & Gain may seem like a strange rest stop for a filmmaker more accustomed to working on broader, bravura canvases. It’s also not his worst movie ever. But if Michael Bay thought he could really fool us, the beginning of the film indicates differently. Pain & Gain is really just fiction - and it’s joyless junk fiction at that.