“Pain and Gain”
2 hours, 9 minutes
I think I’ve been quite clear about my feelings toward director Michael Bay. His body of work is fairly repugnant, only occasionally coming out with a film that doesn’t make me want to crawl under my seat — the sticky, grime-encrusted theater floor being a relatively healthy and hygienic place compared to the mind of Michael Bay.
With that in mind, I had just about talked myself out of going to see this week’s “Pain and Gain,” despite several key factors that made me want to see it, despite my better judgement. One, the trailer looks both funny and kind of bonkers, kind of like a Carl Hiaasen novel. Two, I love both Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson, two actors who tend to elevate whatever project they’re in, often by being surprisingly funny. In the end, I decided to give Bay one last chance, mostly because the buzz on other option, “The Big Wedding,” was that it was one of the worst movies ever made. Surely “Pain and Gain” would be better than that.
I’m happy to say I made the right choice, though somehow I don’t feel any better about Michael Bay.
Wahlberg is Daniel Lugo, a bit of a lug, but a man driven to be a success. Unfortunately, Danny doesn’t want to work his way to the top, but rather is of the opinion that he should already be rich and famous, simply because he wants it so bad. Working as a physical trainer at a Florida gym, Danny takes on a rather odious client named Victor Kershaw who brags about his many millions and inadvertently convinces our hero that the easy money is right there for the taking. Danny devises a plan to kidnap Kershaw, hold him for a while, and eventually convince him to sign over all his assets.
Along for the ride for this ridiculously naive plan are Paul Doyle, an ex-con, ex-cokehead who’s found Jesus, and Adrian Doorbal, a fairly pathetic case of steroidal sexual dysfunction who needs money for a series of disturbing injections. Naturally things do not go as planned, and spiral out of control in short order.
I can say without reservation that “Pain and Gain” is the best work Michael Bay has done. The characters, though nearly all loathsome, are captivating and the performers do a great job of bringing them to life. The movie declares itself a “true story,” leaving off the familiar “based on” or “inspired by” disclaimers. I have no way of knowing whether this is a statement of fact or some kind of Bay-ish braggadocio, but regardless, I think it is the non-fiction aspect of the story that saves it from the usual slick empty-headedness of most Bay productions. The actors have meat rather than cardboard to sink their teeth into, and it shows.
Also, though most of the situations that crop up as this moronic trio blunder their way through an increasingly violent series of crimes are cringeworthy, the movie manages to be pretty funny. Much of the credit for the humor has to go to the fine performances by Wahlberg, as well as Johnson as Paul Doyle, and Anthony Mackie as Doorbal. Also very funny is Tony Shaloub as the reprehensible Victor Kershaw. I was especially glad to see Ed Harris, playing the only likeable character in the whole film, show up as a private investigator.
My wife is convinced that I really only liked “Pain and Gain” because I was lucky enough to watch it with a friend of mine who just happened to show up with his father and brother at the same time I did. Maybe she has something. Maybe Michael Bay movies are meant to be watched in a group, or with a buddy you can bounce things off of or commiserate with when things get too slimy to bear alone.
It’s an odd thing, really. This is Michael Bay at his slimiest, but the movie is actually pretty good. So why doesn’t Bay deserve more props? I will say that no one can deny that, as a director, Michael Bay is more than up to the job, technically. He can handle huge set pieces, action sequences, special effects, and dynamic cinematography with aplomb.
But Bay is on a different planet from most of the rest of us when it comes to the ethic, or the sense of basic morality in his films. In this movie, Lugo, Doyle, and Doorbal are ostensibly the bad guys. The director is telling us very clearly that we should not approve of their actions. But, though he disapproves of them, Michael Bay obviously really likes these characters, and obviously hates their victims. Victor Kershaw is portrayed as being one of the most contemptible human beings to grace the screen in years.
So what are Danny and his gang’s true crimes? Torture, kidnapping, theft, murder? Not really. Their true crime is being so stupid. I got the distinct sense that if these three guys hadn’t been such morons, Bay would have been A-OK with what they did.
That’s probably unfair — I don’t know Michael Bay. Maybe he’s a real sweetheart, but you sure can’t get that from watching his movies. His treatment of women is particularly egregious. The plot of “Pain and Gain” is overlaid with a continuous stream of scantily clad, slinking, sweaty, sexy women. Several scenes take place in a strip club, not unusual for a Michael Bay movie. Here, though, it feels like we are supposed to take the objectification of women as more criticism of the main characters, but the way Bay revels in it, lingers on the shots of oiled flesh, is akin to a guy loudly declaring what a travesty “Playboy” magazine is, and then proceeding to produce a stack of well-worn copies to illustrate in meticulous detail what’s wrong with each one.
In the end, “Pain and Gain” succeeds despite being filled to the brim with Michael Bay’s particular brand of poison. He has made a very entertaining movie about the disturbing lengths people will go to achieve empty notions of success. Whether Bay was attempting to make a biting satire of the American Dream or a crime comedy full of hot babes, muscle-bound hunks, and shockingly depraved chaos is anyone’s guess, but the cynic in me is guessing the latter.
Luckily for me, I don’t have to see things his way. Grade: B
“Pain and Gain” is rated R for violence, sexual situations, nudity, drug use, and pervasive language.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.