Film Review – Pain & Gain
Crime is tantamount to humor. At least that appears to be what Michael Bay thinks. This became apparent to me about a third of the way through his latest cinematic detour of social digression, somewhere around the second act mark, when three bodybuilding friends decide to kidnap a rich member of their fitness gym and torture him into signing over to them his possessions. As the mayhem ratchets up and the audience becomes aware of the would-be kidnappers’ ineptitude, everything that was aimlessly swirling around the film prior settles into place. It’s a foundation that’s based on one principle: the Darwin Awards are hilarious.
If you can readily get one-hundred-percent behind this concept—I’m talking if you think a guy playing Russian Roulette with a semiautomatic pistol is hilariously tragic—then maybe you’re going to at least have that one major thing in connection to what’s being offered here. Like practically every crime story ever told, this one is about a kidnapping gone wrong. This is basically Bay’s version of the Coen brothers’ film Fargo. Bay even cited Fargo as one of his biggest inspirations for this film. (That and Pulp Fiction.) In fact, there’s a strange dichotomous relationship that exists between this movie and Fargo. While Fargo is a fictional story that starts off lying to the audience by claiming it’s based on a true story, Pain & Gain starts off telling us it is a true story and then gives us Michael Bay’s version of the truth.
Whether or not these too-crazy-to-be-true stories are Bayicized or not really isn’t the issue, though. Well, that’s part of the issue, but it’s not what bothered me the most about this tale of hungry eyes, the American dream, and steroids—it’s Bay’s approach to the subject matter. The movie follows the manager of Sun Gym in Miami, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), and his two friends, Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), as they kidnap and then torture Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), who is then passed over by the police basically for being ethnic and sounding crazy with his unbelievable story. The whole actual affair was famously well-documented by Miami New Times writer Pete Collins in an article also titled Pain & Gain. Reading the article because of the film, it brings to light that Kershaw is basically a composite of two men who were both victims of what the article referred to as the Sun Gym Gang.
It’s in this character of Victor Kershaw that the apex of Bay’s fallacies are singularly personified, in the simple fact that the character’s ethnicity becomes a point of the film’s story when it wasn’t a part of the real one. First off, Kershaw is half Jewish; he’s also Columbian, and both things the film points out as potential flaws. When he meets up with the hyper-Christian Doyle, he’s immediately baptized. Later, when the private investigator he hires, Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris), goes to the Miami-Dade police, the captain refuses to look into Kershaw’s story because of his Columbian ethnicity.
All in all, the film’s humor makes Bay come across like Billy Madison, going back to high school twenty years later and thinking all the same things are cool. If you ever wonder why social progression is thwarted by popular culture, look no further than a Michael Bay film. No minority (minority being anyone not a straight white male) is safe. Everything from homophobic jokes, to fat jokes, to racial jokes, to shit jokes is on evident display here. It’s the kind of film teenagers in the ’90s would’ve found funny, only to later go on to feel incredibly guilty for finding funny once they’ve grown up. The story is set in the ’90s, which leads me to ask the question: is this, with the outdated humor, an attempt at a period piece? I think that’s giving things too much credit, as the film really relies on the fact that the audience is going to laugh at bumbling criminals who actually killed people and uncomfortable jokes about anyone different than the skinny, blond, blue-eyed Bay.
Clearly this film was meant as an antithesis to Bay’s over-bloated tenure on the Transformers franchise. Aesthetically, it still carries the visual trademarks of one of his films, but it’s far more stripped-down in terms of cinematography and especially editing. Cuts actually last longer than six seconds. The most positive thing I walked away from this movie with is the fact that Bay somehow got the best performance of Dwayne Johnson’s career thus far. Johnson usually plays The Rock in every role, but here we have a much more nuanced character. Doyle is easily the film’s most likeable character, but it’s because Johnson actually made me believe in the broken-down failings of Doyle, and his desire to be a better person despite the atrocities he subjects himself to participating in.
Unfortunately, Bay just isn’t up to the task of giving us something that doesn’t bludgeon our sensibilities and assault our differences, just the same as his Transformers films did before this. The movie’s constant over-insistence and contradiction of reminding us that it is both a movie and a true story—by giving us written asides on screen to tell us what obviously he can’t do within the confines of the film itself—would’ve been handled much more aptly in the hands of more mature filmmakers like the Coen brothers, who gave us a poignant and darkly comic story of Darwin Award stature with a film that actually lied about its inspiration and only had to tell us once. Instead of a tragedy of comic proportions, we’re left with a comedy of tragic proportions.
Final Grade: C-