Pain & Gain gives us a glimpse into Michael Bay’s soul. It’s not for the faint of heart. The music is dark and often terrifying. There are dildos. And severed toes. And night vision goggles. All the women are strippers, all the men are steroid-laden meatheads. Fat people are targets of humor, especially when vacating their bowels. Yet he seems to be strangely aware of its perversities, which doesn’t mitigate them yet still provides a strange power. By the time the movie spits us out, we’re definitely in a more troubled place… and I’m still not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing.
You can’t say we weren’t warned. Bay’s auteurial stamp is instantly recognizable, and the lack of explosions or giant robots here shouldn’t be construed as a departure from form. He adapts the true story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a Miami gym instructor who concocts an outlandish plan to kidnap one of his clients. After several misfires, he and his friends – the impotent Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and reformed ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) – abduct deli king/raging asshole Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) with the intent of forcing him to turn his vast assets over to them. 30 days of torture, one botched execution attempt and some serious confusion as to what a notary public does later, they actually pull it off: with signed deeds to Kershaw’s home, businesses and various financial goodies in tow. Kershaw lives, but the cops don’t believe his story, leaving Lugo free to live in the man’s house and his partners relishing their share of the American Dream.
That actually seems to be Bay’s underlying point, shocking in the fact that 1) he is not a director known for making points and 2) it actually kind of seems to work. Pain & Gain looks at our shared cultural ambitions as a stunted joke, as asshole haves lord it over stumblebum have-nots, and people from all walks of life look for shortcuts to get what they want. We define success not by “the little things,” as one of the film’s few smart characters articulates, but by the size of one’s wallet and the number of people you can fuck over to pad it.
It’s a bleak worldview and credit Bay for actually understanding its nihilism. That’s not the same thing as being successful, however. Though he wants to give us a balls-out satire, he lacks the requisite subtlety. The journey follows Bay’s typical playbook of hyped-up MTV imagery, gratuitous sexism and fetishized obsession with commercialized crap. The humor is here – black as midnight and covered in R-rated brutality – but it misfires too often for comfort. We cringe when we should be laughing and have to dig through unpleasant scene after unpleasant scene in order to get to the point.
Perhaps most damning is the fact that Bay doesn’t seem to understand genuine human emotions. His characters become walking plot devices or one-note message delivery systems. Daniel and his friends stagger from one imbecilic plan to the next, unable to get out of the way of their own idiocy long enough to succeed. That’s kind of but point, but it also leaves us struggling to relate to them in any meaningful way; we can only watch with detached bemusement as they move to their preordained fates.
It’s not a completely lost cause. Wahlberg handles the lead role with a fair amount of panache, as Daniel’s seething resentment bubbles to the surface just often enough to remind us how dangerous a stupid man with a bad idea can be. After careful consideration, I must admit I have officially become a fan of The Rock, who goes out of his comfort zone here to play a malleable creampuff whose bulging muscles hide a lost and interminably sweet soul. And Ed Harris makes a late inning arrival as perhaps the only grown up in the entire affair: a private detective charged with cleaning up the mess.
Unfortunately, their efforts can’t help the film properly articulate what it wants to say. Pain & Gain thus becomes an odd curiosity instead of a bleak social commentary. Bay’s filmography benefits from its presence, and it suggests that he may go down some very interesting paths in the future. But there’s still too much of the same old crass commercialism here to find a moral center. The film leaves us the way it leaves its characters: perplexed, baffled and a little horrified at the sights we’ve just seen. You won’t forget it easily; it just needs to find a better way to make its surprisingly pertinent points.