By James Rocchi
Depending on who you ask, Michael Bay is either the best thing that ever happened to the movies or the worst thing that ever happened to film; after years churning out the profitable and painfully idiotic Transformers films, Bay’s Pain and Gain is now being offered as a ‘smaller, personal’ film. Of course, for Bay, a ‘smaller, personal’ film still involves top-level film stars and a 25 million-dollar budget — this is a studio film, after all, and it’s not like anyone was expecting Bay to show up with some shot-on-video mostly-improvised indie about infidelity. Instead, Pain and Gain is a lurid, swollen version of an already lurid and puffed-up true crime tale, about Miami trainer-turned-kidnapper Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) who decides to fast-forward on the American dream by abducting and torturing one of his fat-cat clients Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), pulling associates Adrian Dorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) along in his ill-thought-out scheme for ill-gotten gains.
Based on the original reporting of Pete Collins, Pain and Gain‘s screenplay is by Steven Mc Feely and Christopher Markus, whose prior credits on The Chronicles of Narnia and Captain America: The First Avenger indicate they have a taste for big movies, even if the execution on the end product may vary wildly. There are some choice moments here, to be sure — Lugo explains his plan to Paul, summing it up by noting “I’ve seen a lot of movies, Paul; I know what I’m doing here …” and the running gag about the function and uses of a notary is hilarious — but the tone of the film is so sour and superior, hovering above and apart from the acts it depicts, that it’s hard to find any pleasure in it. On one hand, the film is more coherently and less aggressively edited than the Transformers films, but, then again, how could it not be? The direction is more fresh and energetic than you would at first think; the best thing you can say about the film’s direction is that it feels like the work of a talented, energized, capable filmmaker whose worst mistake is thinking Michael Bay is a director to be emulated.
If any one individual saves Pain and Gain from being a total wash, it’s Dwayne Johnson as Paul Doyle, an ex-con who found Jesus in jail and finds Daniel Lugo once he’s out. Dumb enough to think Lugo is a genius, Doyle soon finds himself back with all the habits he had before, all thoughts of eternal salvation sacrificed for the cokehead’s frantic need for a line in the next five seconds. Johnson plays Paul straight — and it works, animating every scene he’s in with life and character. Wahlberg’s work as Lugo is bigger and broader, like a Saturday Night Live skit with better cinematography, and if we never quite believe in Lugo, well, we’re probably not supposed to. (The film itself comments on its own absurdity late in the game as a title flashes up: “Remember, this is a true story.” It’s a brief joke, but it also feels as if all parties involved don’t think we can remember a fact for more than an hour.)
With its carnival of clueless criminals and victims who are shown to clearly deserve it, Pain and Gain could be seen as companion to Fargo, with Miami heat in place of Minnesota snows. It’s not an entirely inappropriate comparison, but it does overlook two facts: Fargo has one redeeming character who works to untangle the mess of blood and bodies smeared across its landscape from a place of principle, and Fargo also makes an effort to display how horrible the crimes it contains really are. In Pain and Gain, Ed Harris’ private eye helps unravel the case, but he’s more contemptuous than principled. And Tony Shaloub’s version of Victor Kershaw is a squealing, preening jackass; when Wahlberg and the gang get one over on him, you can feel the pause where the movie practically reaches out to fist-bump you. But these are — these were — real people; Lugo is on death row.
Like Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain wants to portray America gone mad on TV-fed desires and empty ambition, lying in the Florida heat in a daze — but Spring Breakers was a fantasy fueled with estrogen diluted by alcohol; Pain and Gain is a glib version of the truth pumped up on testosterone amplified with steroids. The best analogy might be that of an ‘unplugged’ ‘intimate’ ‘acoustic’ record from Limp Bizkit or P.O.D.; turning down the volume and bombast of the presentation doesn’t make the material or people involved any smarter. Pain and Gain is Bay’s best film, but we’re judging on a career curve here that includes a talking big rig lecturing audiences about human rights and two Miami cops invading Cuba, so that’s ultimately not saying much. Someone once created the phrase “Bay-hem” — a mixture of “Bay” and “mayhem” — to describe the way Bay blows up scenery and smashes cars in the pursuit of popcorn pleasures. When you mix Bay’s glossy style with a grim tale of amoral criminality, the resulting hybrid (Bay-morality?) is a strangely curdled and contemptuous movie. Pain and Gain doesn’t really look at the folly of desire or the greed intrinsic to modern life or the thin line between self-improvement and self-destruction. Instead, it points a finger at all parties involved — murderers and the murdered, torturers and the tortured — and sneers while it laughs. It’s too bad that a film about poisonous excess, misdirected ambition and shallow stupidity winds up seeming so very, very high on its own supply.
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