Piers Marchant on Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain

April 26, 2013

Pain & Gain
Grade: 78
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Tony Shalhoub, Antony Mackie, Rebel Wilson, Ed Harris, Michael Rispoli
Director: Michael Bay
Rating: R, for for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use
Running time: 130 minutes

By Piers Marchant
for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette & BDA

In order to consider Michael Bay a controversial filmmaker, there would have to be enough of a population out there that doesn’t believe him to be a calculating opportunist — a bombastic hack who has consistently shot for the LCD, and produced little but a steady stream of adolescent, summertime drivel and driven it down our throats like cough syrup — to argue otherwise. In such risible fare as The Rock, Pearl Harbor and a seemingly endless procession of Transformers movies, Bay has proven to be critical kryptonite, while still mining serious Hollywood gold for the studios that employ him. In short, he’s laughing all the way to the Brinks truck, but with his new film, he appears to be trying to let us in on the joke.

Pain & Gain, a truth-based, sardonic kidnapping-gone-wrong tale set in Miami, isn’t really proof that Bay has expanded his limited-but-lucrative range. It’s more that, with this utterly preposterous but largely true story of blood, sweat and extortion, he’s found a fittingly brash, darkly humored vehicle for his already established brand of big stars, big crashes, and lots of empty-headed action along the way.

The story begins in Miami Beach, where Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a slick body-builder recently out of prison for fraud, gets a gig as a trainer at a local muscle gym. There, he works his way up the ladder, and quickly gets in position to make his own hires. He brings in Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), another muscle-head so hopped up on juice he’s virtually impotent, and the hulking Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), also an ex-con, who discovered sobriety and Jesus in the joint and is looking for a way to make a living.

Under Lugo’s audacious command, the trio sets about a kidnapping scheme, wherein they snatch an obnoxious, rich businessman, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), and force him to sign away all his money and property to them. It takes a few weeks of torture before Kershaw finally capitulates, and once they’ve gotten him to sign over all his property and savings, they decide they need to kill him. They fill him up with booze and pills and attempt to stage a car accident; only Kershaw leaps out at the last second. Then, they run him over a couple of times and peel out, only later to find Kershaw again survived.

Bitter and furious at the police’s inept handling of his case, Kershaw calls in Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris), a P.I. with a sterling reputation, in order to track down his assailants. In the meantime, the trio, living well after their last caper, have set their sights on a new victim, Frank Grin (Michael Rispoli), a sex-line millionaire, and take brazen, idiotic steps to ensnare him, resulting in more grim comedy.

Bay shoots the film like it’s a Friday night carnival, all bright colors, whooshing edits, flim-flam camera angles, super slo-mo, and freeze frames, with constant voice overs from the principles to keep the hint of veracity in play (at one point, during a particularly unbelievable section, Bay gleefully stops the action in order to remind us the film is “still” based on a true story). Because of the gang’s penchant for fast cars and high living, he also gets to fill his frame with his standard Lamborghinis, strippers, and lots of coke. It’s a bit as if Oliver Stone was given a set at the Laugh Factory.

The actors’ performances range from half-baked to nearly completely over the top, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As physically compelling as Johnson is, he still hasn’t much mastered the art of mentally embodying a character, but he is smart enough to play the most likable and sympathetic of the threesome. He’s a giant mass of muscle, but also a Jesus freak with, essentially, a decent heart, though his character seems to sway back and forth from darkness to light as the plot dictates. Wahlberg plays Lugo as something of a cross of previous characters he’s portrayed, blending Dirk Diggler’s eternal optimism and ingratiating cluelessness (“If I deserve it,” he beams, “the universe will serve it”) with Max Payne’s talent for mayhem and violence. Of the three, Mackie is given the least to work with (and appears to be the furthest away from the real-life character upon which he’s based), paired off with Rebel Wilson as his wife, and crippled by his sexual impotence; he’s not much more than a yes-man to Lugo.

Whatever else, they definitely give it their all: Johnson prays, cries, and performs beat-downs with equal ardor, and Wahlberg, the former underwear model, reaches back to mock his illustrious past to once again drop trou and strip down to his Calvin Kleins, only here, its in order to protect his clothes as he mutilates a corpse so it can’t be identified.

So why does the whole thing still feel so mean-spirited? For one thing, it’s tricky to play this story — one of the most notorious incidents in Dade County history —as a black comedy when actual people actually died in the process of providing us with these belly laughs (upon my first viewing of the Coens’ brilliant Fargo, I had the same difficulty — until I found out they had totally made up that whole thing about it being based on a true story). The film also has an edge of sadism to it. Bay makes sure never to miss a bloody point, be it a severed toe or chopped hand, and, though the film begs us otherwise, the appropriation of ’90s-era pop (“Gangster’s Paradise” gets a LOT of play), does little to distance these characters from the heinous crimes they’ve committed. These are truly awful people whom we’re meant to find endearingly amusing.

The film also gets a fair amount of cheap shots in — from Shalhoub’s stereotyped Jewish boor to Wilson’s heavy-set nurse whose extreme sexuality is repeatedly played for cruel laughs. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely also repeatedly stuff teen-pleasing bits about poor body hair maintenance, explosive diarrhea, and the general unsavoriness of fat people in an attempt to further entice us. If this is indeed a passport into Michael Bay’s comedic world, we’ll just have to go ahead and revoke our own Visa.

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