Pain & Gain (2013)

Pain & Gain (2013) – I would just like to point out, before venturing into any sort of valid critique, that this is the only movie about which one can say and be grammatically correct “from the director of and starring The Rock.” Had to get that out of the way…

Let us consider the life of a hack. Okay I’m being cruel just for the sake of rhetoric. That’s not fair. Michael Bay is not a hack. First of all, I am very firmly on record as loving the fuck out of The Rock. Secondly, as this linked article points out, Michael Bay is very much in control of what he makes. (The article dares even to consider him an auteur.) He has an instantly recognizable aesthetic he brings to all his films and it’s one that has captured the zeitgeist and influenced countless other film-makers of big-budget action fare. Also, not all of his films are bad. In addition to the flat-out excellent film The Rock he also did The Island, which I rather enjoy and watch large chunks of when it pops up on cable. Armageddon is absolutely moronic film, but watch it again: it’s a whole hell of a lot of fun. Bad Boys knew how to use the charisma of the up-and-coming movie star at its center and I think Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz has since taught us about the unappreciated brilliance of Bad Boys II. (This shit just got real.) Yes, there is Pearl Harbor, which is just flat-out indefensible. Yes, the annoying adventures of a pointless teenage protagonist nearly ruin the robot-fighting awesomeness of Bay’s Transformers films. But the point is the man does what he does and does it very successfully. Which is why his desire to break out of that mold for this film was fascinating. It was a passion project for Bay for years. He wanted to make a film “like the Coen Brothers” (his words) about the Sun Gym kidnapping and murders from 1994. That sounds like a pretty big undertaking for a man most famous for blowing shit up.

Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a man who wants desperately to be a winner. He “believes in fitness” as he tells us in his voice-over. An ex-con (for defrauding senior citizens), he finds a job at the Sun Gym after promising owner John Mese (Rob Corddry) that he will triple business. Surprisingly enough, he does. But he wants more. He sees a rich asshole named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and wants what he has. So he decides to take it. Along with his friend Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and a recently parolled ex-junkie born-again Christian named Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) they decide to kidnap Kershaw and force him (with torture) to basically sign away everything he owns to them. Then they try to kill him. Emphasis on “try.” Of course, once they’re sitting pretty with Kershaw’s money it isn’t enough, and they want more. Plus, of course, they are total fucking idiots. While the police don’t believe Kershaw (largely because of the asshole factor), he hires private detective Ed Du Bois III (Ed Harris) to find some evidence against the morons…

The Coen brothers have often made movies about idiots setting about criminal endeavors that they are in no way competent to achieve, but the thing about those movies is that they spring from the brothers’ imaginations. They did not actually happen (despite Fargo’s opening disclaimer falsely claiming otherwise). Michael Bay is going for dark comedy here. Now I have a sick sense of humor. An idiot murderer barbequing someone’s severed hands (to remove fingerprints) where anybody could see him does seem like sort of a perverse joke… except it really happened (mostly). The movie itself even at that moment chooses to remind the audience that this all really happened. That kind of deflates the potential for humor. Imaginary fingertip barbeque: potentially darkly comic. Real-life fingertip barbeque: disgusting and absolutely fucking horrifying. It’s not that events this horrific can’t be dramatized, but dark comedy is not exactly the tone to take for something that only happened twenty years ago (nineteen when the film was released). Obviously liberties are to be taken. “Victor Kershaw” is a fake name. Paul Doyle is a composite character. But the film contains a subplot about how Adrian needs the money to fund erectile dysfunction treatments from a doctor (Peter Stormare) to keep up with his new wife (Rebel Wilson). That is all made up, presumably for comedic effect. Adrian Doorbal was just a fucking violent psychopath. I guess impotence is supposed make that funnier?

The truth is this movie could be constructed as an absolutely brilliant and flawless dark comedy and still not be able to overcome the fact that its basic premise and general tone is in pretty bad taste. Still, I might be able to move past that and appreciate it. The problem with that is that this is NOT brilliant or flawless. The film has strengths, to be sure. Many even. The main trio (Marky Mark, Anthony Mackie, and The Rock) are all great in their roles. Wahlberg sells that delusional spirit that convinces losers that they are winners because he watched a motivational speaker (Ken Jeong, playing a character based off of Tuan “Tommy” Vu). Johnson gives the best comedic performance, possibly because there was no real Paul Doyle to whom he had to remain true. The idiocy and absurdity of the plan is ripe for comedy… until bodies start piling up. Looking past the taste issue, which I am well aware others may not have such an issue with, I don’t think Michael Bay is quite the right director for this movie. Bay’s style is always big, and that really fits like seventy-five percent of this movie but there are a lot of other moments that call for a subtler approach. I just don’t think “subtle” is something he can do. Even though the movie itself doesn’t work, I am actually really glad he branched outside his comfort zone and am really curious what else he could do if he left the robots behind for a little bit. Then again, Transformers: Age of Extinction came out last month and continues to rake in money hand over fist so we might be waiting for a while…

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