Pain & Gain Balances Visceral Thrills and Stinging Satire Through Morally Ambiguous, Often Questionable Means

Pain & Gain Theatrical Poster

Pain & Gain Theatrical Poster

TitlePain & Gain
Genre(s)Comedy, Crime, Drama
Director(s)Michael Bay
Release Year2013

Not one for subtlety, (proudly) American director Michael Bay has endured a nearly two decade career living out his wildest, most incoherently childish fantasies on celluloid and raking in more money with each than most families make in their entire lives. In terms of purely visceral and brainless thrills, Bay struck gold with 1996’s The Rock, an Alcatraz-set spin on the now cliched Aliens formula; with each passing film however, Bay stuck to his gimmick, delivering loud, assaultive flurries of dizzying non-stop chaos and destruction with overt patriotic flourishes and little to no degree of self-awareness, no matter the script. It seems all the more surprising then that Pain & Gain, Bay’s latest and most modestly priced work in over a decade, exhibits all of these qualities and none of the usual tedium. By embracing its absurdity wholesale and never looking back, Pain & Gain accomplishes much more than anything its director has ever produced, even if it is at the expense of numerous sleazy, often uncomfortable laughs. Even if it does overstay its welcome, this American Dream is often a humorously idiotic one worth sticking through, bad taste and all.

“I watched a lot of movies, Paul, I know what I’m doing!” says Daniel Lugo early on, a quote that holds mostly true to Bay; borrowing rather liberally from Scorsese and especially the Coen Brothers, Pain & Gain is first and foremost a murky comedy based on a crime spree so absurd it had to be real. Lugo, portrayed with the same kind of dumbfounded naïvety Mark Wahlberg won over audiences with in Boogie Nights, isn’t satisfied with his current lifestyle. A former conman and a moderately successful gym trainer, he grows to feel more entitled to a piece of the luxurious pie his new client, Victor Kershaw, eats every day. Motivated by a shallow motivational speaker, Lugo attempts to correct this by bringing along impotent friend Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and born-again ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) for the ride, taking matters into his own hands and extorting Kershaw for his assets through a bit of roughing and toughing. As brilliant as the plan is (it isn’t), things don’t go quite as planned and the gang soon find themselves on the run as well as succumbing to their own vices.

Playing out like Fargo if its criminals were Jersey Shore outcasts, Bay ensures his subjects stay dumb as rocks.

Playing out like Fargo if its criminals were Jersey Shore outcasts, Bay presents some incredibly dumb figures looking for wealth in all the wrong places.

In the tradition of Fargo, we follow these idiotic criminals as their situation goes from one incomprehensible extreme to the next; Bay ensures the sleaze is pumping in heavy doses, making us chuckle and laugh at some truly awful scenarios and some real lowbrow humor. It’s all in good fun as Bay repeatedly assures us that just about everyone in this version of Miami is about as smart as a doorknob. Once the film reaches its messy third act however, it becomes a bit harder to laugh as the bodies begin to drop and the reality of these crimes settles in. The lack of a real moral compass also makes for some questionable comedic situations. While Ed Harris’ Ed Du Bois is the lone character to emerge from this cesspool of idiocracy with a head on his shoulders, his appearance comes too late to constitute much of a guiding compass. By then, Bay has already showcased early 90s Miami as a veritable goldmine of sleazy glamour and luxury in only the way a Michael Bay movie can. Whereas Fargo never really attempted to make its audience sympathize with its idiots, nor did it implicate them in any of the crimes, Pain & Gain isn’t quite as assured in this department, succumbing to some of Bay’s traditional stylistic elements in a decidedly less one-sided way than his previous works. While it’s often quite funny, even hilarious at times, you can’t help but feel dirty for partaking in some of the “fun”.

Despite the film’s often unclear intentions, Pain & Gain manages a feat that few of Michael Bay’s other films manage to achieve; it’s actually surprisingly entertaining. The film’s rapid, testosterone-fueled pacing rarely lets up and the action, one of Bay’s principal fetishes, feels impressively muted by his standards. That’s not to say Pain & Gain is a calm or subdued dive into the surreal exploits of the Sun Gym Gang. What Bay’s film lacks in character development and weight, which, let’s face it, aren’t exactly his most revered strengths, he more than makes up with in stylistic flourishes and self-reflexive techniques which reinforce Pain & Gain‘s zany, off-beat nature. For the first time in his rather long career, Bay has made a film blatantly aware of its own ludicrousness; one early flashback, in which Lugo testifies before a court in regards to his scheming ways, all the while being painted against a broad American flag, serves as one of many examples of its director’s trademarks being utilized through self-parody. All of Bay’s signature tricks are at work here and yet, given the way it treats its subject matter, Pain & Gain benefits from moderately sanctioned doses of restrained bombast, a more offbeat, unapologetic tone and a visually arresting aesthetic direction, punctuated by a flurry of gratuitous GoPro shots and meta-title inserts. As a result, each sequence plunges forward with momentum and rarely, if ever, overstays its welcome. At 130 minutes however, the film does feel rather padded in only the way Bay can (his shortest film to date remains Bad Boys at 118 minutes in length) as some of the film’s numerous sight gags could’ve been trimmed or removed entirely.

While unmistakably a Bay movie on the surface, Pain & Gain features something none of his other works possess; a self-aware sense of humor.

While unmistakably a Bay movie on the surface, Pain & Gain features something none of his other works possess; a self-aware, if slightly murky sense of humor.

By far and away Pain & Gain‘s biggest strength lies in its players and the reckless abandon they bring to their roles. Mark Wahlberg, whose career consists of one too many Bostonians for good measure, reminds us why Paul Thomas Anderson saw an ideal fit for his iconic Dirk Diggler; as Daniel Lugo, Wahlberg uses his charisma to its fullest effect while coupling it with an incompetent and foolhardy attitude, breathing humor into an otherwise despicable and unchangeable man. Lugo’s self-taught idea of the American Dream and his desire to have his life turn into one is as shallow and misconstrued as his constant references to classic and cliched crime films, and Wahlberg drives it home convincingly without ever mistakenly making Lugo likable. The real star of the show however is Dwayne Johnson, whose wild turn as Paul Doyle is something of a revelation. While Johnson, to his credit, has been spending the last few years trying out roles that, while not always successful, avoided the cookie-cutter WWE films that most wrestlers have fallen into, this is perhaps the first case where he gets to show off. Seeing Doyle go from a born-again Christian with nothing but good intentions covering up for his past vices and his sudden, drastic downfall is nothing short of electrifying. While still as idiotic as anyone else in the film, Doyle is nonetheless given a bigger heart than his comrades thanks to Johnson’s fractured yet charismatic performance. It’s the first major example of Johnson’s talent in front of the camera and the start of what will hopefully be a bright, new career for him. The rest of the cast all fair well too, with Anthony Mackie and Rebel Wilson forming a formidably goofy couple and supplying much of the film’s raunchy humor in the way of penile jokes and a particularly wild montage. Whereas everyone else is tasked with behaving like a cartoon come to life, Ed Harris supplies one of his most subdued performances in quite some time, especially given his past history with Bay (a quick glance at The Rock‘s gag reel will give you an idea). In short, he supplies the story’s brakes and does a fine job as usual.

With his wild turn as Paul Doyle, The Rock has given us a star-making performance that will hopefully steer his career into a new direction.

With his wild turn as Paul Doyle, The Rock has given us a star-making performance that will hopefully steer his career into a new direction.

Tony Shalhoub does a great job of making you absolutely despise Victor Kershaw, a man who did actually suffer through a rigorous and flawed extortion scheme. While it’s a great performance, it nonetheless highlights why Pain & Gain ultimately feels puerile and crass at times. If one is willing to accept this and look past its moral ambiguity and overlong running time, there’s a supremely entertaining film to be found at its core, characterized by some truly outrageous performances and a style rooted in exposing much of Miami’s artifice. Pain & Gain is that rare Michael Bay movie that could, warts and all. Whether Michael Bay was the right person to essentially shun the very demographic he’s catered to for the larger part of his career is another story, especially considering that another Transformers is looming just around the corner. And here I was, almost ready to forgive him…


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