When you see the words “Directed by Michael Bay,” the question isn’t if you are about to watch a bad movie. That’s a given. The question is exactly how awful it is going to be. In the case of Pain & Gain, released nationwide on Friday, the answer is pretty terrible. Michael Bay has at least found a new way to make movies dreadful, in that he took a real story that really no elaboration or embellishment and then pumped it full of steroids (figuratively and literally). I guess it is only fitting that a movie about three bodybuilding muscle heads trying to pull off a caper would be bloated and empty.
As Pain & Gain likes to remind you, the story told in the film is based on actual events that took place in Miami in 1994-1995. Truth is in fact stranger than fiction in this case; without that disclaimer, the actions and decision making of the main characters is so ludicrous that you would almost be forgiven for assuming that some screenwriters just decided to write up the most preposterous story that they could come up with and decided to film it. Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a fitness enthusiast who believes that he is much smarter than he actually is and that he deserves more than the world has given him. After a seminar with a motivational speaker from infomercials (Ken Jeong), Daniel decides that he best course to getting rich is to just take from someone who is already successful and wealthy. He sets his sights on Sun Gym customer Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and recruits his friends Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to assist him. His brilliant plan is to kidnap Vincent, torture him and force him to sign over all his assets to the trio. The fact that this might seem shady to anyone – a prominent businessman suddenly turning everything he own to a guy who works in a gym – doesn’t cross anyone’s mind. When the mastermind of your crew is played by Mark Wahlberg, you know you are dealing with a bunch of dummies (I like Wahlberg – given the right material he can be quite good – but I don’t think anyone is going to mistake him for a Mensa member). The gang is in way over their head and continues to make bad decisions that will ultimately lead to their undoing. Ed Harris pops up to class up this whole affair as a private investigator trying to figure out what exactly happened. The fate of Lugo is never much in question – the opening scene is him being surrounded by the police – and the story is primarily told as one extended flashback with narration by the lead characters.
There is a lot to find frustrating with Pain & Gain, but primary for me was the fact that in the hands of a different director this could have been an interesting movie. Done as a smaller independent film with a director that has more subtlety and finesse, I think I would have quite enjoyed Pain & Gain. The true story in and of itself was enough; it was weird and bizarre and didn’t require much tinkering to make it interesting. Bay, however, is incapable of doing anything small scale or quietly and the result is a movie that is tonally a mess and leaves the viewer confused as to whether this was one long elaborate joke and, if so, if the people involved with the film were in on it. I’m not sure if the entire movie was some sort of immersive meta commentary on the stupidity of the Sun Gym gang or just lazy film making.
The film definitely plays the story for laughs and plays up the gang’s incompetence and lack of intellect. In the process, they took an already over the top premise and made it even more cartoonish. Bay really couldn’t help himself; even with compelling source material, his answer to everything is more. He throws in crazy camera angles and slow motion cinematography. He has to add sophomoric scenes about body hair and diarrhea. This is a movie turned up to 11 when a 7 would have sufficed. Coco Chanel is famous for saying “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove on accessory.” That logic would have benefited Pain & Gain as well, which is so overblown that it collapses into itself and becomes complete parody. You roll your eyes at their buffoonery and complete lack of self-awareness. But I also found myself wondering if that applied to the actors as well; Wahlberg isn’t a nuanced performer and I don’t know if he thought that he was in a drama or a comedy. I really was waiting for his character to earnestly shout “I’m a star; I’m a big bright shining star” at some point. The Rock’s Paul is so dumb and simple that you wonder if he is in fact developmentally challenged. Of the trio, Anthony Mackie seems to have the best grasp on what is going on, but he is given such terrible material and lines that it becomes irrelevant. The scenes with Ed Harris are the smallest and most restrained of the film, which makes it feel like he’s in a completely different movie that got spliced into this one. Tony Shalhoub chews so much scenery that I am surprised that he didn’t get indigestion.
The Shalhoub character is the most problematic from a morality stand point in that the movie seems to be indicating that if you are a big enough jerk, you deserve to be kidnapped, beaten and have your wealth extorted from you. There is an unseemly undertone of blaming the victim in Pain & Gain; while the Sun Gym trio are portrayed as somewhat lovable lunkheads, Victor Kershaw (the name has been changed from the original victim) is so obnoxious and terrible that you get the feeling that the writers and directors are rooting for the gang to pull this off and that Kershaw was, to some extent, “asking for it” by being awful. That’s a pretty crappy point of view to take of the real life victim of a pretty heinous crime, especially when the family of the victim is still alive and, based on everything I read about the real life case, is a compete character assassination of the man who already suffered enough. It’s easy to forget that underneath all the inanity and preposterousness of the Sun Gym gang, they left a stream of torture and murder in their wake. This is a tragedy that is played for cheap laughs and that is an important thing to keep in mind. Real people had their lives ruined.
Now, I’m not saying that it is impossible to turn a real life crime into a comedy; it was done and done well in last year’s Bernie, which dealt with the murder and subsequent cover up of an elderly woman. That film also was based on an incredible real story that stretch credibility, but was handled with the necessary finesse and trust in the original story that it turned out to be one of my favorite movies of 2012. Of course, it helped that everyone agreed that the victim in the case was terrible in real life – her family included – but if Pain & Gain had been done in the similar vein of Bernie it would have been a much better movie.
Some other thoughts:
- For a film that hypes that it is telling a true story, they did make some pretty big changes (like the number of people actually involved). If you are interested on reading up on the actual case I recommend this excellent series of articles from the Miami New Times.
- I’ll hand it to the actors that played the Sun Gym gang – they certainly beefed up for these roles. While the Rock is already pretty muscular in real life, Wahlberg and Mackie are much more ripped than usual.
- Even though this movie was pretty bad, I still got to see The Rock shirtless in overalls, which was probably worth at least half the ticket price. Full disclosure: I had a life sized poster of The Rock up in my various apartments from 1999-2011. The prominence of the poster diminished the older I got (he moved from our kitchen to my office to eventually the inside of my walk-in closet) and I’d love to tell you that it is not hanging in my current apartment because I have finally accepted adulthood, but the truth is that the poster was ruined in my most recent move.
- Rebel Wilson is completely wasted in this film.
- I could have sworn that Mischa Barton (Marissa from The O.C. and not much else) appeared in one of the shots of the movie, though I can’t find anything to back this belief up.
- While I knew going in that this movie was most likely going to be a train wreck, I was actually pulling for it to be better than expected. Going to see Pain & Gain is what happens when you are bored and it is a very weak weekend at the box office.
- Michael Bay continues his need to insert unnecessary casual homophobia into his movies.
- For a movie that seems to think it is a comedy, I didn’t hear a single person in the audience laugh even once
Pain & Gain is abysmal, even by Michael Bay standards. It really is a shame that this story wasn’t told by a better director as I think it could have been really interesting. There is definitely a movie to be made about a delusional man who thinks he is entitled to his piece of the American dream without putting in the real hard work necessary to achieve it. Bay is just not the man to make it. By asking his leads to play it straight and making everything as crude and over stylized as possible, Bay suffocates whatever promise the insane source material provided.