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Feeling the burn: “Pain and Gain”

April 30, 2013

Pain_&_Gain_Teaser_PosterIt’s tempting to say that with Pain and Gain, Michael Bay has finally found a movie about as vulgar and excessive as he is…and I’m not going to resist the temptation. He has. He’s found his Holy Grail. With this, his first film in six years not to feature giant robots—let alone gunfights, car chases or his usual hallmarks—Bay has moved in a direction that’s actually fairly bold…for him, anyway. This departure from form sharply divided critics, with some so effusive in their praise that you’d think he’d made Citizen freaking Kane, and other so automatically inclined to hate anything the guy produces, they’d heap on the vitriol even he actually made Citizen Kane. By objective standards, Pain and Gain is an okay movie, but by Michael Bay standards, it’s actually pretty darn good.
Pain and Gain is a surprisingly-faithful telling of a Miami crime-spree first reported in a novella-length series of articles by Pete Collins in the Miami New Times. In the mid-‘90s, a group of steroid-addled employees at a flailing fitness center, called Sun Gym, decided to make a quick buck by kidnapping one of the gym’s members, holding him in a warehouse, and torturing him until he signed over most of his money and property. Wackiness, as I’m sure you can imagine, ensued.

Mark Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, the ringleader, a personal trainer with ridonkulous biceps and history of white-collar crime. Lugo is portrayed as a kind of brain-dead, ‘90s-afflcited Willie Loman—a man of limited capabilities, obsessed with the idea that he deserves a much bigger slice of the American dream than he’s thus far been getting.

So he recruits fellow gym-rats Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) to back him. Doorbal is after his slice of the pie, sidelined as he is by a menial job at a taco joint and steroid-incapacitated tackle-box. Doyle is perhaps the most interesting character—a former thief and cokehead ex-con who found Jesus in prison, who is trying to go straight, but has no prospects to do so.

Together they conspire to kidnap Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), an Argentinian-Jewish businessman who joins the gym and boasts a little too loudly about his huge house, nice car, cigarette boat and offshore accounts. And so, after a series of hilariously-inept abortive attempts (though fewer than occurred in reality), the Sun Gym gang manages to snatch Kershaw and spirit him away to a sex-toy warehouse, where they work him over.

Now, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with this plan, and, yeah, they all do, but the biggest problem is Kershaw himself. More stubborn and resilient than they thought, he refuses to break. Worse, he recognizes Lugo even through his blindfold. Pretty soon, the quick shakedown turns into a mini-Gotmo-ing as the group spends weeks trying to breakdown the guy. When he finally cracks, the next step is simple: they have to kill him.

Entering the movie late is Ed Harris as Ed Dubois, a private investigator who becomes intrigued by the case, and pretty soon he is assembling a case against these three lunkheads with all the sensibility and cleverness they sorely lack. DuBois is like a shot of epinephrine to the hyperkinetic, credulity-straining proceedings, acting as a welcome oasis of normalcy and decency in what increasingly becomes a portrayal of a Miami so rancid even Elmore Leonard would walk away in disgust.

From the beginning, Pain and Gain puzzles with the question of weather or not Bay is in on his own joke. The movie is rife with his usual excesses—stylized visuals, hyper-masculine men, women who are porno fantasies come to life—but these things are also how the Sun Gym gang saw the world, dating strippers, snorting coke, and generally embracing the sleaze that was ‘90s Miami (and maybe still is). The story may give Bay an excuse to wallow in his patented built-from-the-id-of-a-15 year-old-boy worldview, but at points he does seem to remember to step back and say, “Oh…uh…not everyone is like this.”

But it doesn’t happen enough, as too much of his mean-spiritedness seeps through. When Lugo shows palpable disgust at overweight gym members it’s clearly his perspective, but when Bay characterizes a cruddy motel by showing overweight children lolling in a pool, well, that’s all him.

Likewise, Bay can’t create an emotional arc for his characters. Their fortunes rise and fall due to their own excesses and vices, but they never actually grapple with the consequences of what they do or what it does to them. Unlike, say, Henry Hill in Goodfellas, the members of the Sun Gym gang never have to contend with their venality.

There are a half-dozen better movies lurking in Pain and Gain, (it’s best if you don’t think about them) but the one we get still works pretty well. Bay has a lot of good actors at his disposal, with Wahlberg anchoring the film nicely and giving the other actors room to move. Dwayne Johnson, however, is the huge find of this movie, imbuing his Paul Doyle (in reality a compilation of other accomplices) with a genuine sense of tragedy, while being funny as hell. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger at his best, Johnson knows how to subvert his own freakish physicality, playing Doyle as a lost little boy trapped in the shell of a battle-‘bot. If this isn’t a career-making performance, it certainly should be.

In the end, you end up with a choice when it comes to Pain and Gain. You can decry the movie it’s not—a sharply-viewed portrait of a place and time of inexplicable, strangely-intangible wealth and the glitzy, boorish people who had it (the kind of people who probably sympathize with the folks in The Queen of Versailles)—or accept the movie on its own terms.

So Bay didn’t make a great movie. But, hey, when the D- student manages to turn in a C+ paper about why blowing shit up is awesome, or why the porn stars in Vivid Entertainment movies are hotter than the ones from Wicked Pictures, you might as well just chalk it up as a win.

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