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Pain and Gain
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by Brett Gallman

"No country for hollow men."
4 stars

Despite his generally empty-headed oeuvre, Michael Bay has made it abundantly clear that he does believe in certain things: explosions, the male gaze, and, perhaps above all, an unfailing America. Few filmmakers could be considered as unflinchingly jingoistic as Bay, especially during the past decade, when it’s been beyond passé to be so. So what does it look like when he tackles the darker subtexts of the American Dream, a pseudo-myth perpetuated by lust and greed? Naturally, it resembles a Michael Bay Film in every sense: “Pain & Gain” is a loud, lecherous, slick, lavish and completely excessive affirmation of both his aesthetics and his reverence for America—even when his homeland is exposed for the idiocracy it often breeds.

Remarkably, the film is impossibly entertaining despite its heightened, almost self-aware status as a Bay movie. There’s a sense that the director is keenly aware of his reputation, but, rather than opt for self-parody, Bay aggressively embraces his style in earnest. When a plane flies overhead apropos of nothing in a signature low angle shot, it’s an obligatory but vital thumb to the eye: even when stripped of an outrageous 9-digit budget and an endless supply of visual effects, Bay can still swagger distinctively. It seems appropriate that this—the most “restrained” Bay movie in years—is still the most forceful and undeniable.

It’s such a Michael Bay Film that it drowns out his most obvious influence in the Coens: at its core, “Pain & Gain” is a boneheaded, muscly riff on “Fargo” that centers on an incredibly bizarre but true story centered on a trio of bodybuilders looking to cut corners on the American Dream. When shooting up with steroids to achieve physical perfection doesn’t translate to any real success, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) enlists fellow gym rats Adrian Doorball (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) for a ridiculous scheme that involves the kidnap and torture of a local millionaire (Tony Shalhoub) in an effort to literally take everything he owns by force.

Their plot is obviously shoddy, and Bay has no use for subtlety or the dry, detached wit the Coens employ to highlight human foibles; instead, his approach is something of a savage, turbo-charged assault that only knows one, unrelenting speed. Hyperactive doesn’t quite describe it: it’s almost as if you can hear Bay furiously thumbing through the pages of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s already breathless script. Full of voiceover narrations from nearly every major character, the film becomes a cacophony of idiocy, crassness, and hedonism. It’s the dark comedy of “Natural Born Killers” filtered through a more slapstick sensibility that pummels its subjects to the point of sadistic debasement. What starts as a seemingly quirky, perhaps tragic story of misguided ambition quickly escalates into a total fucking gong show.

Its cast of characters provides a stark portrait of haves and have-nots. Wahlberg embraces the inherent silliness of a man who doesn’t know how ridiculous he is in Lugo, an amateur bullshitter who exudes an undeserved confidence. Guided by the mantra of a predatory self-help guru (Ken Jeong in a very Ken Jeong role), Lugo finds himself not only wanting more from life but also expecting it: the Oceanside villas, the Lamborghinis, the legion of girls waiting at his beck and call. It’s an unflattering role made incredibly compelling by a performance from Wahlberg that captures humanity and resists simple parody. You spend most of the movie uncomfortably laughing at the guy through gritted teeth.

Despite his ineptitude, he captures the awe of his slack-jawed buddies, who continue to go along with his plan even when their first kidnapping attempts are foiled. Mackie is a pitiful dimwit with an erectile dysfunction born out of years of steroid abuse, so his is a literal quest to regain (or overcompensate for) his manhood, especially when he develops a relationship with his nurse (Rebel Wilson in one of the more muted but funny turns in the film).

The breakout here is Johnson as Doug, a former crackhead and ex-con that’s joined Team Jesus. Bay has a lot of fun contrasting Johnson’s preposterous physique with Doug’s arrested, almost childlike demeanor, but Johnson ascends beyond this one-note, running gag of a character. There’s true pathos here, as Doug is the most sympathetic of the trio, a guy who can’t help but relapse under the weight of peer pressure. Even when he is providing the punch-line to several scenes, Johnson makes the dialogue sing with deadpan, understated deliveries that further mute his typically bombastic personality.

Watching these three stumble through this black comedy of errors is equally horrifying and gratifying. Make no mistake, however—it’s also riotously entertaining and cathartic trainwreck cinema. Their deeds are beyond the pale from the outset and only get worse, and Bay delivers them with reckless, unwavering abandon that’s once again in the service of material that deserves it. “Pain & Gain” feels like a course correction via regression, a cinematic exercise in addition by subtraction that allows its director to distill his terminal velocity style into a pure verve that believes in its own bullshit (not unlike Lugo himself).

Since Bay barrels out of the gate, it eventually becomes exhausting and lends itself to some bloat; I’m not sure there’s a moment that even qualifies as downtime, as Bay injects even the most mundane exchanges (relatively speaking) with nitrous. This is a film that has Wahlberg treating a neighborhood watch meeting like it’s an infomercial for motivational speaking (the same is true of his powwows with a group of neighborhood boys that he’s set on the path to true bro-dom).

Somewhere around the point where Bay sees fit to remind us that this indeed still a true story despite its incredulity, this hyper-stylized vision of reality begins to wear itself out, perhaps intentionally so. For once in his career, Bay may be attempting to intentionally repulse with an outrageously hedonistic scene that’s full of ‘roided beefcakes and silicone bikini babes with fake breasts to match their hollow personalities.

Or perhaps not--one gathers that this scene may somehow be the director’s vision of both the ideal and the twisted ideal. In “Pain & Gain,” the high life is still somewhat glamorous, provided one gets there in (mostly) honest fashion. It’s an empire presided over by shady businessmen and porn magnates that manage to come off as sort-of decent human beings compared to the film’s protagonists. Shalhoub’s Kershaw is an insufferable prick with offshore accounts, but there’s no sense of righteous indignation directed towards him or his ilk. The film reserves most (if not all) of its condemnation for Lugo and company, whose attempt at class ascension is thwarted by a fatalistic and bemused force. Don’t hate the game, it says, but rather the players who cheat at it, thus preserving the sanctified notion of the American Dream itself.

It seems fitting that the first Bay film with some meaty subtext (okay, it’s supertext in his ungraceful hands) would run into some disconcerting implications here, as it comes dangerously close to absolving and perpetuating that ideal. However, things get even complicated when you consider that Bay’s sympathies could lay with his boneheaded trio after all. The three seem irredeemable but sometimes border on becoming victims of an ethos that insists that maybe everyone should scratch and claw for every advantage. Maybe the game is rigged, and the film often feels so obviously heightened that it must be satire aimed right at the heart of a cherished American ideal.

I’m not entirely convinced, though, especially since Bay eventually has Ed Harris saunter in as a retired private eye that aids Kershaw in bringing the trio to justice. He’s exactly the sort of blue collar hero that Bay has typically glamorized above all; he’s analogous to Tommy Lee Jones’s Tom Bell in these sea-salted badlands that flow with an evil that isn’t inexplicable as much as it’s completely vapid.

Bay even comes this close to ending the film with an echo of the final scene in “No Country for Old Men” as Harris discusses the events that he’s witnessed with his wife. Unlike Bell, Ed Du Bois isn’t left fumbling for meaning, as he condenses “Pain & Gain” into a platitude that espouses humility and appreciating what one already has. That’s about as unironic as it gets, and it’s shocking that it’s somehow extracted from a film that also features barbecued body parts.

Is that a distinctly American value, though? Bay seems to believe so. After sifting through the ashes of the mean-spirited, bleak, and savage chaos of Miami, he emerges with the heartland vision of America that he’s so enamored with. It’s a place where common men like oil-drillers and scientists have averted certain doom; in “Pain & Gain,” the fight seems to be for the very soul of America, and Bay is eager to preserve it—even when it looks like he’s picking at its scabs.

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originally posted: 04/27/13 17:36:27
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User Comments

2/13/17 morris campbell decent no more no less 3 stars
9/12/13 mr.mike Cast is a plus but the movie goes on far too long. 3 stars
7/18/13 Jeff Wilder Bay's best since The Rock. 4 stars
5/09/13 allyson becker fairly decent movie, not really my cup of tea though 3 stars
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  26-Apr-2013 (R)
  DVD: 27-Aug-2013


  DVD: 27-Aug-2013

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