PAIN & GAIN is reprehensible filmmaking at its finest. This is Michael Bay’s magnum opus, his thesis on the American dream. While I can say with no reservations that this is the best film Bay’s ever made, that statement may need a bit of quantifying considering his catalog. By Bay’s standards it’s a masterpiece. However, if you’re easily offended, best stay away.
Granted, there’s a bit of thematic confusion involved here – this is Michael Bay’s grand statement on excess in America, and he’s probably the last guy on the planet who could address these themes with any sense of propriety. He’s the poster child of excess, and watching Bay get a little preachy on the subject on the surface seems ludicrous. But beyond all comprehension, it works. It works because Bay commits totally to the story he’s telling, and he seems blissfully unaware of the oxymoronic tone of PAIN & GAIN. It’s also quite possible that Bay is fully aware, in which case I have to bow down to the man, because he has mastered irony in a way that hasn’t been done since the days of Mark Twain.
If this wasn’t a true story, it would have been a Michael Bay movie first. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg, giving his best Tony Robbins by way of Arnold Schwarzenegger performance) is a trainer at Sun Gym, but he wants more. He’s entitled to more, he thinks, and what better way to get it than to team up with his buds Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne Johnson) and beat the shit out of local self-made millionaire Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) until he signs over all his assets?
For Daniel, the American Dream is something he’s owed, and not something he’s supposed to earn. He’s built, popular, and a nice guy (in his own mind, anyway) so why shouldn’t he be rich? Adrian is having some trouble in the penis department, and this heist might help him out, and it will also keep his girl Robin (Rebel Wilson) happy with a house and money to spare. For Paul, who found Jesus in prison and is trying to stay on the straight and narrow, the money is a temptation that he’d rather stay away from. But Daniel and Adrian are his best friends and he doesn’t want to let them down. And when Paul gives into his weaknesses, especially that hell bitch cocaine, he turns into a monster.
No one much likes Victor Kershaw anyway, and when Kershaw manages to get away with his life, no one seems to believe his crazy story. In Miami, if you’re rich and unlikable, chances are you’re making your money in drugs or something else equally dishonest, so no one much gives a damn for poor Kershaw’s plight. Enter private investigator and former cop Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) who takes interest in Kershaw’s story, and Daniel’s plans begin to unravel as his partners begin to go broke.
PAIN & GAIN is chock full of Bay irreverence – shit jokes, racist jokes, homophobic jokes, sexist jokes, they’re all there. Anyone looking for something offensive will certainly find it. All of Bay’s trademark bad jokes show their ugly faces, but this time, they give off an odd, disjointed feeling – you’re not quite sure if Bay’s making fun or if he actually means what he’s saying. On one level, Bay is having a grand time with these characters and these situations, and yet he would like the audience to think that he’s also looking at the situation dispassionately. But that’s simply not possible in a Michael Bay movie. As in BAD BOYS 2, he’s simply having too good a time to let little things like decency and scruples get in the way.
Take Dwayne Johnson’s Paul – and this is a career best performance for Johnson – who seems lovable, dumb, and goofy, and yet when he goes on a coke bender all his morals are tossed aside. Paul is played for laughs, and Johnson is having a great time playing him, but it’s impossible to deny that Paul is a pretty terrifying and amoral person, when given the slightest push into wrongdoing. Same goes for Wahlberg’s Daniel, who is constantly reassuring himself that he deserves for great things to happen, and it doesn’t matter who it hurts. The movie is full of voiceovers from the various characters, and all the actors are having a lot of fun with the material.
The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely stays mostly irreverent, and probably calls attention to itself a bit too often. It’s difficult to imagine all of this is based on a true story (documented in an article by Pete Collins), but the movie stops and assures us that, yes, a lot of this actually happened. But whether or not the movie portrays the real events accurately is almost irrelevant. This is Michael Bay’s world, and if the story doesn’t fit then dammit, Bay will make it fit.
All of Bay’s signature camera moves are here; that circular camera pan through the holes in the glass, for one, and it wouldn’t be a Bay movie if people didn’t walk slow motion away from an explosion, except this time even Bay seems to be aware of how much a joke that shot is. His editing style is as frenetic as ever, especially in the film’s final third, where it feels like Bay is sprinting towards the end. A bit of constructive editing could have made the film shorter and possibly more effective, but as events begin to spiral out of control in the movie, one can’t help but feel inclined to ride along as long as it takes.
Is PAIN & GAIN a good movie? I certainly laughed a lot. I thought the performances were quite good and served the material well, especially Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson. The script is clever when it needs to be, even when Michael Bay undercuts it with his silly Bayisms. Bay can be as bad as George Lucas in that regard; while Lucas has Jar-Jar sniffing at an alien fart, Bay has an entire bathroom toilet explode in turdery. But when he’s not smacking his actors around with impractically large sex toys, going out of his way to offend, he pulls really good work from everyone involved.
And yet, inside the ridiculous nature of PAIN & GAIN, I sense a director that means well, that really does want to be taken seriously, and has something to say. PAIN & GAIN is never dull and always interesting even when Bay’s own excesses undercut his own message. It’s been said that the Marquis de Sade wrote 120 DAYS OF SODOM on the prison walls in his own shit, and even though that’s been proven untrue, I imagine Michael Bay could relate to that story. If it sticks to the wall, it works.